Who Is In Charge?

Emergency Management (EM) is a critical field for higher education institutions. There is no doubt that the function is all but a necessity. Whether it takes form as a full-fledged department or office or whether it falls into the duties of an existing position, in today’s environment, colleges and universities cannot afford to neglect it.

The question that often arises, however, is “What exactly is the executive’s role in the process at large?” All higher education VIPs — from the chief executive to his or her cabinet members and other officers — must have some basic knowledge of what emergency management means, how it is executed at their institution, and what role they themselves play.

Where Does the Chief Executive Officer Fit In?
Let’s take a look at some key incident/emergency leadership groups and try to determine where the CEO fits in.

The Incident Command Post (ICP)
. National standards are clear. Those with statutory and legal responsibility to resolve an incident are the individuals in “command.” Much like in a municipality or other governmental entity, the chief executive is not the incident commander (IC), although the IC derives his or her delegated authority from the executive. That role generally falls to law enforcement, fire, and EMS services. Security and safety officials usually fall into auxiliary roles here in support of the ICP operations.

The Emergency Operations Center (EOC). This site is all about resource coordination. The critical human and physical resources that support an incident from response to recovery are all centrally coordinated through this site. The EOC coordinates areas such as shelters, mass care, public health, utilities/infrastructure, food services, and the like. The EOC also coordinates with surrounding communities and regional and state level EOCs. Again, the chief executive provides delegated authorities to the individuals listed here, but is not necessarily the EOC manager. This individual is usually someone with emergency management experience.

The Joint Information Center (JIC)
. This site is where public information is coordinated and disseminated. Generally, the institution’s designated media relations department will lead this site in collaboration with any external communities involved. Again, delegated authorities play out here, and the chief executive may not necessarily always be physically present at this site.

The Executive Policy Group (EPG)
. The EPG generally contains the individuals with policy authority and those that, in the end, assume ultimate responsibility for the outcome of the incident/event. This group generally oversees all of the other sites from a high-level perspective. This is indeed where the chief executive officer fits in and where policy direction regarding issues that arise comes from.

Does that mean the executive doesn’t have a role at the other sites we discussed? Not necessarily. It is vital and important for the EPG to be in constant communication and have updates from every site. Without that, the chief executive could not do his or her job. Sometimes, a subordinate executive can serve as a liaison to the other sites in order to provide on-site policy guidance if needed.

This is critical to understand because the executive will need to provide high-level strategic guidance, and must also take the necessary steps to implement related policy institution-wide. This is important prior to, during, and after an emergency incident.

Decision Making for Emergency Management
Decision making for emergency management as a process itself is much like any other decision-making process the chief executive faces. Dr. Richard Pattenaude, the chancellor of the University of Maine System, recently said to an audience at a statewide higher education preparedness conference that as a good leader, college executives must find the unique balance for their institutions between emergency management decisions and actions that they must execute themselves, and those that they should trust to their subordinates that have that authority delegated to them.

This is indeed a key lesson. There is no “how-to,” “Dummies guide,” or flip chart that covers every aspect of the process. Executives must certainly make calls based on their experience, understanding, and situational awareness.

Because of this, the chief executive must also ensure that the situational awareness coming from his or her subordinates, established relationships, and the environment is adequate. For this, it is vital to hire and retain personnel trained in emergency management rather than delegate it out to someone who seems like they “should” know it. Public Safety, security, and other staff often get tasked with this. Those individuals might have the necessary qualifications, but this may not always be the case.

Culture Derived From Leadership
One of the most critical areas of high-level leadership is building, fostering, and sustaining the right culture and environment. The same goes for leadership with regards to emergency management. This so-called “culture of preparedness” is extremely important to set the right pace, direction, and priorities.

If the institution’s president or chancellor is a public and visible champion of preparedness, a lot of pieces will fall into place as the key players will see emergency management as a priority and will keep it in the forefront of their minds as they go about their business.

Dr. Nancy Carriuolo, president of Rhode Island College in Providence, made it a personal mission to take the lead with her institution. Along with her Vice President for Administration and Finance William Gearhart and Director of Safety and Security Fred Ghio, Dr. Carriuolo participated in an executive seminar in January sponsored by the Rhode Island Emergency Management Agency (RIEMA), FEMA Region I, and the University of Rhode Island’s (URI) National Institute for Public Safety Research and Training (NISPRT).

This seminar motivated Dr. Carriuolo and her team to actively seek an alliance with FEMA Region I and RIEMA, and led Rhode Island College to sponsor a region-wide higher education preparedness workshop seminar and a major inter-regional tabletop exercise in June in which two FEMA regions, several colleges and universities, and multiple states from Maine to New York participated. An even larger full-scale exercise is planned for the fall. More importantly, Dr. Carriuolo was in attendance not only as an active participant every step of the way, but as a champion of the programs and visionary for the team. Seeing her personally executing each mission inspired other institutions as well as her own. This set the pace for Rhode Island College and raised the bar for every institution in the state and in the region.

The pre-pilot executive seminar that Dr. Carriuolo attended earlier this year is set to become an official FEMA course later this year that will be offered at no cost to host institutions across the country. URI’s NIPSRT is developing the seminar; it will delve into these and other very important topics in a brief high-level overview for chief executives and their cabinet officers. Topics will include legal, risk management, leadership, public information, and policy considerations. For more information, send queries via email to info@nipsrt.org.

Shad U. Ahmed is the director of the National Institute for Public Safety Research and Training, coordinator of emergency management and homeland security, and past chief of Emergency Medical Services at the University of Rhode Island. He serves as the Disaster Preparedness Chair for the National Collegiate EMS Foundation. He is the principal investigator on a Homeland Security project developing a national training curriculum for colleges and universities in emergency and evacuation planning. He may be reached at shad@uri.edu.

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