Have We Learned the Lessons of Disaster Preparedness?

Less than a year after Katrina and the other devastating storms of 2005, news reports and public focus on these disasters are diminishing perceptibly. As we move forward and face other issues and problems, this is to be expected. But the coming months will bring the first anniversary of Katrina and the opportunity for institutions to confront a critical question: what have we learned and how prepared are we for disasters that might befall our campuses?

A number of colleges and universities — and tens of thousands of employees and students — were deeply affected by the terrible 2005 hurricanes along the Gulf Coast. The schools affected faced staggering, almost incomprehensible problems as a result. For a time, the lessons learned from these schools served as a wakeup call for the rest of us. But will this awareness be lost? While some schools might dismiss this type of disaster as either too improbable or too expensive to adequately prepare for, every institution faces increased probabilities of both natural and manmade disasters in the 21st century. Far from a cliché, the world we live in today is changing. Climate shift, geopolitical tensions, economic and demographic globalization, epidemiological vulnerabilities and growing interconnectedness through global networks all act synergistically to yield current and emerging threats.

Institutions must understand the potentially devastating impact if they are unable to return to functionality within a reasonable time. The associated operational and financial issues can easily become terminal as services and functions cease, courses are cancelled and student enrollments disappear. An institution must return to its academic mission and to financial subsistence before it is critically and irreversibly damaged. This narrow window of opportunity, at the micro level for each functional area, as well as the macro level for the institution at large, is crucial.

What critical lessons concerning crisis management and disaster recovery should we learn from those who lived through Katrina, 9/11, the Northridge earthquakes and other disasters? Our colleagues tell us that among the vital lessons are the following.

• If preparedness is not a requirement, it will not happen. Administrators, state legislatures, boards of trustees and others must champion disaster preparedness, as necessary.
• Someone must own this responsibility, and there must be accountability. This individual — not committee — must have preparedness as his or her primary responsibility. If it is merely an add-on to other responsibilities, it will not be dealt with as a priority. This individual must have the training, resources and requisite authority to satisfy the charge.
• Resources, including money and time, must be committed to establish and maintain preparedness. The focus must not be solely on the cost, but on the criticality of the need. Disaster preparedness should be viewed much like insurance premiums; the cost for insurance is far less than liability for the damages.
• Without testing and verification, a plan does not exist. A simple contract with a recovery firm (such as SunGard) that provides facilities and systems is wholly inadequate on its own. (The institution’s own recovery plan is what is implemented by using the facilities and systems provided through these contracts.)
• To coin a phrase; believe, but verify. Disaster preparedness should be the subject of a periodic audit, in the same manner that accounting processes are audited. Many states require this.
• It is not about technology, such as a loss of the“main computer room.” The problem is holistic, affecting every administrative, academic and student support function of the institution (including residence halls, food service, instruction, enrollment management, etc.). Technology is only a part of the whole.
• Explore reciprocal arrangements with other institutions based on mutual assistance. Having a partner with an equal interest in recovery and who can provide vital assistance when required can be an effective and cost-efficient solution.
• Communication is crucial during a disaster. Communication systems must continue to function and provide vital information to those affected. Web, satellite phone and other capabilities become critical in the event of a disaster. Ensure that they will be available.
• Disaster preparedness must be coordinated across the institution, with partnering institutions or vendors and with local agencies.
• Return to the academic mission of the institution as quickly as possible. The futures of our institutions, employees and students require that we return to the business of education.

Now is the time to ensure that our institutions are adequately prepared. There will be no opportunity for a“do-over” when disaster strikes. Our roles as professionals mandate this responsibility.

David W. Dodd is vice president of Information Resources and CIO at Xavier University in Cincinnati. He can be reached at 513/745-2985 or doddd@xavier.edu.

About the Author

David W. Dodd is vice president of Information Technology and CIO at the Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, NJ. He can be reached at 201/216-5491 or david.dodd@stevens.edu.

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