In the summer of 1997, a devastating storm raged through Fort Collins, Colo., and flooded much of the campus of Colorado State University.
The school sustained more than $100 million in damage, and hundreds of faculty and staff were displaced. But because the school had an emergency operations plan in place, it was able to react quickly to the crisis.
Less than a month later, the school began its fall semester on schedule. The crisis plan did not address every situation that arose in the aftermath of the flood, but it provided university officials with a structured strategy to lead the school back to normalcy.
"The plan is a framework," says Tom Milligan, director of media and community relations at Colorado State. "No crisis is going to conform to a plan. You absolutely have to be flexible."
The shootings at Columbine High School in Colorado last spring were yet another warning for administrators that their institutions can be plunged into a crisis in the blink of an eye.
When a college or university has to react immediately to a crisis, a plan allows people to respond more effectively.
"I always tell people, 'You will have a crisis,'" says Linda Gray, assistant vice president and director of news and public affairs at the University of Florida in Gainesville. "Thinking about it, even minimally, in advance will make it easier to deal with."
Colleges and universities-typically more complex organizations than their K-12 counterparts-need to have crisis plans to respond to the countless tragedies and disasters that can occur.
In addition to classroom buildings, a college campus may include residence halls, medical facilities and research labs with potentially hazardous materials and sensitive equipment, and sports arenas where as many as 100,000 people can gather at one time.
A university campus often is the focal point of a city, and a school's crisis could affect the entire community, as well as alumni, students and potential students living far away from campus.
Colorado State's plan notes that the campus is subject to numerous natural, technological and manmade dangers: floods, fires, earthquakes, storms, drought, spills or leaks of hazardous materials, power failures, major accidents in the air or ground, civil disturbances, bomb threats, biological or chemical attacks.
It provides guidance for handling public information, evacuation, law and order, caring for displaced people, medical emergencies, damage assessment and chain of command.
"Warning time to implement this plan varies from little or none to days or weeks, depending on the type of hazard," the plan states.