The Role of Senior Management

While talking with several colleagues over the last few months about roles and responsibilities during emergencies, it was evident that some campuses struggle to clearly define senior management roles during large-scale events. Several facilities organizations that have responsibility for emergency management described a common scenario where senior administration officials wanted to rush right to the scene of the event — utility failure, fire, chemical spill, or crime. All expressed concern that it would disrupt operations teams and possibly have responding crews wait for senior campus officials to make decisions just because they were on scene, regardless if they had the expertise to make decisions for responders.

Everyone agrees that senior management has a role in large-scale events — they are the policy group that will help define what is most important to be brought back to service first. They are not the group that should be on scene directing how campus resources and experts carry out their jobs to contain the problem and start recovery.

There are various strategies to keep administrators off the scene. Some campuses assign a safety staff liaison to administration and let them know it is not safe to be near an incident. Other campuses don’t notify administration officials for small-scale Level 1 events — those that are isolated to a single room, don’t disrupt activities in other buildings, and don’t require outside resources to control.

Level 2 events — those that impact other buildings or require off campus resources for assistance — are reported to senior management. The key for Level 2 events is to provide administrators with the information they need before they ask questions or want to go to the site to answer their own questions. In most cases if you can provide answers to the following questions on your first call you should be able to keep senior management off scene.
  1. What is the nature of the incident? Take a few minutes to clearly identify what has happened. For example what is on fire: a container, bench top contents of a fume hood? Get very specific information about what the problem is.
  2. Are there any casualties? Once you have told administrators what the incident is, their first question will most likely be related to people. Are there any injuries? Do you know the extent of those injuries?
  3. How much damage is there to the facility? This is always very subjective in the early stages of an event. You should, however, be able to give initial estimates. For example, in a lab fire there may be heavy smoke and water damage in the room as well as additional water damage to floors below. Agree to update them once it is safe to access the facility.
  4. What is the immediate impact to the area involved? Administrators will want to know if the building will be closed for a period of time. Will it result in cancellation of classes or performances? Will research activities be delayed? How will animal care be provided? If the event is outside a facility, will campus circulation be impacted or will streets and roadway closures impact access to or egress from the campus?
  5. What resources are being used? Let administrators know what departments are involved with the incident. Tell them who is acting as the incident commander. If outside agencies such as the local fire department are involved, let them know these agencies are assisting.
  6. Is the media present? If members of the media are present it may be difficult to keep senior officials off the incident site. You will need to have a strategy to provide a location away from the hazard and place media and administrators there. Many campuses also provide the language to respond to media inquires. It is also helpful if there is a liaison from the operations side of the incident to field technical questions that an administrator may not be able to answer.
Providing information — correct and detailed information — should keep administrators focused on their role during an incident. They need to be able to answer policy-related questions. Will classes resume in temporary locations? How will large groups of staff be relocated? If a floor or entire building is no longer habitable, how will those functions be brought back, or will they be discontinued? If administrators trust that operations on-site are run by competent and skilled staff members who provide them the information they need, they are more likely to stay in their role away from the site.

Mike Halligan is the associate director of Environmental Health and Safety at the University of Utah and is responsible for Fire Prevention and Special Events Life Safety. He frequently speaks about performance-based code solutions for campus building projects, is recognized as an expert on residence hall fire safety programs, and conducts school fire prevention program audits/strategic planning. He can be reached at 801/585-9327 or at mike.halligan@ehs.utah.edu.

About the Author

Mike Halligan is the President of Higher Education Safety, a consulting group specializing in fire prevention program audits, strategic planning, training and education programs and third party plan review and occupancy inspections. He retired after twenty six years as the Associate Director of Environmental Health and Safety and Emergency Management at the University of Utah. He frequently speaks and is a recognized expert on residence hall/student housing fire safety and large scale special event planning. He also works with corporate clients to integrate products into the campus environment that promote safety and security.

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