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Back to Archives | Back to April 2006 Contents 

Ready Campus: Prepared to Help when Disaster Strikes

By Michael A. MacDowel, Ed.D., President, Colege Misericordia, Dalas, Pennsylvania

ost American campuses have crisis plans, many of which are quite sophisticated, and they are well prepared to secure their people and facilities if a disaster strikes. But how ready are the campuses to assist people in surrounding communities?

For College Misericordia, the need for a region-wide crisis plan was highlighted in wake of Hurricane Agnes in 1972. The ensuing flood devastated the city of Wilkes Barre, Pennsylvania, and the Wyoming Valley region. College Misericordia, high above the floodplain, became a temporary home for 1,000 flood victims. One of its residence halls was transformed into a makeshift hospital where 52 babies were born.

In times of natural or human-made emergencies, college and university campuses can and have offered shelter, medical assistance, communications support, counseling, and solace to disasters victims.

Ready Campus is designed to provide all colleges and universities with a flexible, adaptable planning guide to prepare their own campuses for emergencies and, just as importantly, to help neighboring communities. Ready Campus will enhance relationships with community and state emergency management coordinators by using the resources of colleges and universities:

  • Campus facilities have some advantages over public facilities during emergencies. Dining halls, residence halls, communications services, transportation equipment, large meeting rooms, radio and television studios, recreation centers, and even a stockpile of mattresses are among the many attributes that can be invaluable to a community in a time of disaster.
  • Faculty and staff, many of whom are experts in the exact areas that are so important during emergencies, can give unselfishly of themselves so that others will survive and recover quickly from disasters. Nurses, biologists, counselors, communications staff, and public safety officers are some of the members of the campus who can contribute their talents in a crisis event.
  • Students themselves can be excellent volunteers, even more so if their courses of study have included service learning components to help them learn how to best serve others during emergencies. Many colleges have integrated emergency preparation activities into courses in nursing, occupational therapy, the physical sciences, communications, political science, psychology, religious studies, sociology, information technology, and other disciplines.

While many campuses have plans that consider such resources and service learning opportunities, few of those plans are sufficiently integrated with metropolitan, regional, and state emergency management agencies crisis plans. Successful emergency management at colleges and universities requires coordination with the community.

That is why Pennsylvania has developed a program called Ready Campus. Eighty colleges and universities throughout the state have participated in the program.

The Ready Campus Manual provides details on the initiative to draw campuses and community partners together to improve regional response to disasters, and the integral elements for developing a successful plan are highlighted in this article.

Identify Community Partners and Establish an Emergency Management Committee
The committee should include students, faculty members, and administrators as well as a wide representation of community leaders. The exact composition will vary according to the needs of each partnership, but partners might include local representatives from the Federal Emergency Management Agency and other federal agencies; state agencies like the office of homeland security, department of health, and office of public welfare; the municipal fire, police, and health departments; nonprofit organizations like the American Red Cross and the Salvation Army; and the local chamber of commerce and other private-sector groups.

For example, Pennsylvania College of Technology and Keystone College are working with the American Red Cross to train staff members to become disaster volunteers and prepare their campuses to be shelters. West Chester University of Pennsylvania students are designing a plan and procedure for disseminating vaccines and response kits throughout the surrounding community. College Misericordia marketing students are working with a local town council and county officials to raise awareness of emergency procedures in that municipality.

Each partner needs to understand the other partner’s specific mission, priorities, and scope. All partners will bring unique resources and abilities to the partnership. It is also best if the members of the committee have the authority to make decisions for their organizations. For the committee to be functional, those representatives should have the authority to commit resources -- using a residence hall or sharing campus vehicles or phone banks, for instance -- both in the planning phase and in times of need.

Create a Mission Statement
Partnerships work best if they are developed for a specific reason and have a formal plan, target dates, and expected results. Partners should determine what to accomplish and reach a consensus on the key goals and mission. During the various meetings, the committee should assess community and regional needs and resources, identifying those services that already exist to avoid duplication and waste. For instance, what roles and tasks are identified in the campus plan that the Red Cross is already poised to handle?

As part of that process, it is necessary for the partners to share information about the resources that can reasonably be provided. Then the committee should develop an inventory of all needs, assets, and personal contacts for both the campus and the community.

Prepare Memoranda of Understanding with Neighboring Agencies
A written agreement formalizes the relationship between partners, outlines mutual goals, establishes clear expectations for each partner, and defines legal liabilities. The college president and the chief executives of all partnering organizations should sign the agreement. The participants, language, and content of each agreement will vary according to the specific characteristics of the local partnership. Some institutions may prefer to create a separate memorandum for each partner.

Prepare Volunteers on the Campus and in the Community
Training programs, tabletop exercises, and emergency scenarios based on the goals outlined in the memoranda of understanding are necessary preparation for emergency response. They help all participants understand their roles and responsibilities before an emergency occurs.

Identify Risks
The advisory group should work with the institutions risk management and legal professionals to determine the risks that could result from the partnership. For each risk, identify who or what could be harmed and to what extent. For example, if students volunteer in emergency triage units in the community, they might be exposed to illnesses from the victims. Students coming in direct contact with patients should be properly trained in decontamination process and what medical gear they should wear. It is essential to develop a risk-management plan that covers a wide range of possibilities and review it regularly.

Document Activities and Keep Records
Record keeping is vital not only for reimbursement for disaster activities but also for insurance and legal purposes. Important records include participant sign-up sheets, liability waivers, volunteer contact information, accident logs, and copies of major equipment warranties. The campus risk-management professionals should retain all such information and update it regularly.

Besides forming partnerships with various organizations outside the higher education environment, campuses located near each other should work together to identify ways to pool resources and build a more efficient regional response to catastrophes. The Pennsylvania State University system, for example, has an in-house emergency management coordinator and a highly sophisticated plan, but it is always working to better integrate its efforts with the municipalities and counties surrounding its main campus and with its 23 satellite campuses around the state. Smaller colleges can begin a similar process by reaching out to nearby campuses, the Red Cross, local agencies, the business community, and others to determine ways they might offer mutual support.

These are just a few actions that colleges can take to help prepare themselves and their neighbors for any potential disasters. The Ready Campus Manual presents many more details and ideas to prepare the local community and state for a collaborated approach to events.

Just a few years ago, the idea of collaborating with many other groups off the campus on emergencies would have died for lack of interest. But there is keen interest in it today because there is a greater need to be prepared to serve others than perhaps at any other time in U.S. history. Higher education has responded to crises in the past, and individual institutions are responding today, but a more systematic, coordinated approach will yield the best results. ■



From The Police Chief, vol. 73, no. 4, April 2006. Copyright held by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, 515 North Washington Street, Alexandria, VA 22314 USA.

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