In Case of Emergency
- By Amy Milshtein
- February 1st, 2011
In the world of great unknowns one thing is certain; emergencies, natural or man-made, happen. Along with them comes a rapid fire series of questions: Is it best to evacuate or shelter-in-place? How is traffic managed while quickly getting students and staff to safety? Who is in charge? Managing these incidents requires a cool head, solid planning, and up-to-date training.
In the case of any incident the first question is easy, “Who’s in charge?” The reply, however, may be a bit muddy. “The real answer is ‘it depends,’” explains Shad Ahmed, chief of emergency medical services for the University of Rhode Island and director of the National Institute for Public Safety Research and Training. “It all varies from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. Colleges are in charge of their own properties and often have their own police, fire, and EMTs on campus. Schools want to work this chain of command out well in advance of an event with a memorandum of understanding.”
“Whoever is in charge on campus should be closely tied to the local police or fire department,” adds Jon Evenson, director of emergency management, Rolf Jensen & Associates, Inc. “Once the local authorities arrive they usually take over command, but the real experts in this situation are the campus police. They know the site better than anyone else.” Campus authorities also know their population better. “In the case of a bomb threat it may be the campus police that decide on whether to treat the incident as a hoax or a credible threat,” says Ahmed.
The Next Step
Once a threat has been determined and the chain of command set, the next step is choosing a course of action. “Sometimes you want to evacuate the entire campus, sometimes you want a limited evacuation, and sometimes you want to shelter in place,” says Evenson. Technology can help target communication as needed. “You can be very specific with your instructions,” says Ted Milburn, vice president, marketing, Cooper Notification. “You could send 10 different buildings 10 different messages without broadcasting to the entire campus.”
This could be useful if there is an active shooter. “The old model was to pull a fire alarm in the case of a bomb threat,” explains Ahmed. “But a shooter might have called in the bomb threat hoping for more open targets. Or there might be a bomb triggered to go off with the fire alarm.”
If a mass evacuation is deemed safe and necessary, many new variables now come into the mix. From pedestrian mechanics to civil engineering to disaster psychology, first responders have much more than the initial crisis to take into account. “Sometimes a little thing can turn chaos into order and vice versa,” says Ahmed. “For instance, if you are evacuating an arena with 20 exits and there are posts in front of the doors you will have more orderly exiting with less of a chance of trampling.”
Know Your Population
“We try to instill in the university teams that we work with that they need to act as professionally and calmly as possible,” insists Evenson. “One has to remember that these are young adults and may act differently in a crisis situation than an older population.”
Special needs populations also pose different challenges. “FEMA now calls this group Access and Functional Needs,” says Ahmed, and it encompasses more than the disabled. “The group includes non-English speakers and people with cultural sensitivities. For instance, some cultures forbid a man to interact with women.”
Ahmed admits that managing groups with Access and Functional Needs can be difficult. “There are so many different legal aspects to consider, and sometimes they give conflicting information,” he says. “For instance, we just put out a guidance document that explains the intersection between the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) and the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA),”
Schools also need to take the Clery Act into account when communicating their critical incident strategy, which requires institutions to give timely warnings of crimes that represent a threat to the safety of students or employees. Institutions are also required to publish their policies regarding timely warnings in their Annual Campus Security Report. Colleges and universities, both those with and without on-campus student residential facilities, are required to have emergency response and evacuation procedures in place. Institutions must also for the first time disclose a summary of these procedures in their annual security report (ASR) due to be disclosed to students and employees on campus.
Training is Critical
Training remains perhaps the most important aspect of critical incident preparedness. To facilitate this, FEMA provides the National Incident Management System, or NIMS, training. NIMS training ranges in levels from 100 to 400. “100 and 200 are available online, and I recommend everyone take it,” says Ahmed. “It is based on common terminology and lets multiple agencies come together and communicate easily.” Ahmed points out that right now there is a school-specific Level 100 course with a school-specific Level 200 course rolling out shortly.
Level 300 training is aimed at field supervisors, while Level 400 is for anyone in a command situation. These on-site, classroom-based courses are offered both through state and local emergency agencies or homeland security departments. “We are also introducing G 402, which is an Incident Command System overview geared towards executives and senior officials like university presidents,” Ahmed continues. “It discusses policy, leadership, and the executives' roll in a critical situation.”
Ahmed and his team are introducing other courses appropriate for first responders, such as examining pedestrian mechanics, civil engineering, and disaster psychology. “I think everyone should be trained on at least the 100 and 200 levels,” he says. “And then retrain every year. It’s the single most important safeguard you can take.”