A disaster can strike at any time and when it does, students, staff and the general public rely on school officials to provide safety and support. Implementing a plan focused on the following areas will make your campus more effective in responding to crisis events.
Key Elements to an Effective Plan
Developing a comprehensive disaster plan can be overwhelming, but it is important to remember why you are doing it in the first place. The goal is to ensure a safe environment at all times.
Key elements to focus on are:
- Crisis Planning Team — The crisis team should consist of individuals from key areas across campus, including security, administration, public information, student affairs, human resources, legal, finance, IT and facilities. With these key areas providing input, your plan will cover a wide spectrum of important issues you may face during the crisis event.
- Risk Assessment — This process identifies potential hazards specific to your school or university and analyzes what could happen if any of them occur. The assessment then analyzes the risk associated with each hazard and how to eliminate or control the hazard. This is a vital part of a disaster plan as it raises awareness of potential hazards, identifies who is at risk, determines if current control measures are sufficient, and prioritizes the risks and control measures. The goal of the assessment is to reduce the level of risk associated with each hazard by adding precautions and to focus on the high-risk, high-likelihood scenarios first.
- A Robust Emergency/Disaster Plan — Once you have established your hazards, the next step is to develop a plan on how to respond to each hazard individually. For example, you would have a different plan for a tornado compared to a bomb threat. Each plan should outline the methods for managing and responding to the specific event.
- Crisis Communication Planning — It has been said hundreds of times: “Communication is key.” You should articulate in your plan how and what you are going to communicate during a crisis event. But communication is not just dealing with the media; it is also the ability to correspond with students and staff directly. The initial critical communication begins with them, then with alerting first responders and emergency personnel and, in parallel, accounting for the status of everyone on your campus. Talking with the media and informing students and staff who are not on campus also is an important step.
- Social Media — Social media is a part of any crisis communication planning, but for schools and universities it is even more vital. It would be difficult to find a high school or college student not using some form of social media. In years past, most schools and universities sent emails to inform students and staff of a situation. This practice evolved into emergency texts, and now has progressed to social media. Most likely, you already have a current social media presence with which your students and staff are familiar. The next step is to have social media policies and procedures that trigger in a crisis so students will be alerted with accurate, real-time information. If an event takes place, associate a specific hashtag with communications tied to that event, as this will provide users a quick and efficient way to gather information.
- Employee-Wide Training — Everyone on staff needs to know and understand the disaster response plan. Training all staff and ensuring they understand their roles and responsibilities within the plan can directly save lives. The training should be done as frequently as you see fit.
- Testing the Plan — You have identified your potential risks, you have developed a plan on how to reduce and respond to each event, you have developed a crisis communication plan, and you have trained your staff. Now what? To test the viability of your plan in a mock real-life scenario, you will want to perform drills or exercises. These will show you which areas of the plan are effective and which need to be improved. The drills and exercises should be done at least annually. Working with local emergency management agencies is pivotal during drills and exercises. They are professionals who are well prepared to deal with these types of events, and their input can be extremely helpful in developing an effective evacuation or response plan. It also helps to build those relationships ahead of an actual emergency.
- Updating the Plan — You have all the key elements of the plan and now you are done, right? Wrong. A disaster plan is never “done.” It is constantly evolving, and sometimes rather quickly. It is critical to keep in mind the disaster plan is a living document, one that requires consistent updates by the crisis planning team. The updates are based on the results of drills and exercises and changes to your risk or industry trends.