According to the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics, there were more than 4,000 two- and four-year public and private institutions of higher education in the United States in 2006. More than 15 million students attend these institutions, and they employ several million faculty and staff members. These organizations are charged with not only providing education to students, but also ensuring those students’ safety and general welfare while on campus. Each college or university must develop policies, procedures, and strategies to ensure its campus is safe and to respond in a timely and efficient manner when incidents occur. The rash of campus shootings since 2000 has drawn renewed attention to the issue of safety at these institutions. Most campuses have convened committees or task forces to examine existing policies and practices and to consider enhancements where necessary. In particular, many have created special emergency response teams that plan, implement, and review crisis management activities.
Higher education institutions face unique challenges when thinking about safety on their campuses. First, many college and university campuses sprawl over large geographic areas. Some have satellite or regional locations as well, and many now host medical centers, sports complexes, research facilities, performing arts venues, and even businesses, in addition to classrooms, offices, and student residence
College campuses such as Purdue University, pictured here, pose unique challenges when developing an emergency response plan. Considerations for the distance between buildings and the constantly varying student population need to be made. (Purdue News Service, Photos by Dave Umberger) halls. Each of these buildings may pose its own set of challenges and require a different safety plan. Further, the campus population changes daily, so it is difficult to monitor access and to create procedures that keep the campus safe without infringing too much on the college or university experience. Additionally, campuses do not operate on a traditional business or school schedule. Classes may run at night and on weekends, events may be planned at all hours, and students who reside on campus are free to roam around whenever they want. Even when classes are not in session, students from other states or countries may still live on campus.
Unlike corporations or even public schools, institutions of higher education tend to be governed in complex and democratic ways. Although this can be good in some respects, it may make decision making more difficult and lengthy than in a more hierarchical structure. While inclusion of all important stakeholders is recommended, it is imperative that colleges and universities develop a clean authority structure when it comes to emergency management. This effort must be accompanied by a communication plan that can disseminate information to faculty, staff, students, and guests in a timely and accurate fashion.
Given that most college students are at least 18 years and thus are older than the legal age of majority, they are expected to be able to make their own decisions.
Campuses thus face the challenge of requiring adults to follow policies that may be necessary for safety purposes but may not be pleasing to students. K-12 schools, with their generally minor student populations, do not typically have to deal with this dilemma.
The best emergency management plans emanate from the college or university president, chancellor, or provost. These individuals have the power and authority to devote the necessary resources to emergency management. This high-level support is especially important for financial reasons, as college and universities must make decisions within specific fiscal parameters that not all personnel or students are privy to. It is not recommended that these high-level officials dictate the plan without seeking input, but rather that they take the lead in creating an emergency management plan and team.
To be truly effective, an emergency management plan must focus on collaboration and partnerships, both on campus and in the larger community. All relevant departments must be involved in the planning process, and external partners such as law enforcement, fire department personnel, emergency medical services, media, and local social services must be included.
Although the threat of a campus shooter has received the most attention in recent years, experts recommend that institutions of higher education create “all hazards” plans instead of preparing for a specific type of threat. An all-hazards plan allows development of capacities and capabilities to respond to a variety of emergencies and natural disasters, including inclement weather, natural disasters, biological hazards, violence, and terrorism.
Each portion of the emergency plan should specifically address how to care for vulnerable populations, such as those with language barriers or disabilities. Thus each campus must create a plan that is unique and specific to its size, geographic setting, number and type of buildings, composition of student body, and other factors. Simply importing another school’s plan will not be effective.
Ideally, all faculty, staff, and support personnel will receive routine multiple-hazard training that allows them to become familiar with the protocols and procedures of the emergency plan. Community partners should be included in the training as well, so that every potential responder is amply prepared. Role-playing exercises can enhance the experience and lead to needed discussion and adjustments.
A key component of campus emergency planning is dissemination of the necessary information to relevant parties. Campuses must create a communication plan that allows them to share critical emergency information with students, such as where to go if a natural disaster occurs and how to evacuate campus if needed. General emergency management information can be displayed on university websites and on posters on campus as well as incorporated into student and faculty handbooks.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has developed a four-phase framework for planning and implementing an emergency management plan. The four phases identified are prevention-mitigation, preparedness, response, and recovery.
Prevention focuses on decreasing the likelihood of a crisis. Mitigation refers to actions taken to eliminate or reduce loss of life or property damage during a crisis. To prevent and mitigate crises, campuses must identify all hazards that could potentially cause a problem. This effort might begin with a review of campus and community data, assessing the vulnerability of the surroundings and the facilities as well as analyzing recent crime data and inclement weather probabilities. If there are no existing reviews of this nature, it is recommended that campuses conduct them. The U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Safe and Drug-Free Schools has developed assessment tools and information for applying the Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design (CPTED) program, which involves assessing the ability to see what is occurring in a particular location, restricting who enters or exits, and maintaining respect for property.
Ensuring a healthy campus climate can help prevent emergencies as well. To further this goal, campuses can sponsor activities that allow students to develop healthy relationships and a sense of connectedness to the school.
The preparedness phase focuses on designing strategies, processes, and protocols to prepare the college or university for potential emergencies. It includes development of campus collaborations and contracting with community partners to provide services. Plans should be coordinated with state and local entities’ plans, thereby ensuring that no duplication occurs. Further, preparedness strategies include assigning appropriate personnel and delineating responsibilities. The creation of a Continuity of Operations Plan (COOP) and a Business Continuity Plan (BCP) for all campus operations functions is recommended as part of the preparedness phase as well. The COOP ensures that the campus can maintain essential functions such as housing, food service, and transportation when an emergency occurs. The BCP addresses administrative functions such as payroll and communications, enabling them to continue in an emergency. Additionally, preparedness involves establishing a reunification program in the event students or staff become separated from loved ones during an emergency. It also involves the development of mental health counseling services for persons who are traumatized.
During the response phase, campuses enact their plans to contain and resolve an emergency. An emergency operations center should have been identified and should serve as a central command center during the incident. Decision makers then move forward based on information gleaned from other members of the emergency management team. Ideally, colleges and universities will have readily available a copy of the emergency plan and procedures, communication equipment and phone directories, relevant blueprints and maps, a list of personnel and contact information, building security information, backup power and lighting, and emergency supplies.
In the recovery phase, campuses assist students, staff, faculty, and the campus community as a whole return to full functioning. Necessary steps will include assessing physical damage to the campus and contracting for repair, utilizing the COOP and BCP to ensure needed services return to operational status as soon as possible, and restoring the learning environment. Although classes may need to be cancelled for a short time, a good emergency plan can help ensure the amount of time off is minimal. Finally, all those affected by the incident should receive appropriate counseling and services.
In addition to the resources provided by the federal government, many private companies specialize in campus and school safety. For example, National School Safety and Security Services helps schools establish crisis plans that are specific to their unique challenges. It also conducts training for personnel on emergency planning and carries out drills to ensure plans are enacted efficiently. In addition, National School Safety and Security Services helps schools enhance their communication capabilities and work with relevant community providers.
- Crisis response and violence prevention resources. (n.d.). National Mental Health and Education Center. Retrieved from http://www.naspcenter.org/safe_schools/safeschools.htm
- FEMA emergency management guide for business and industry. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.fema.gov/library/viewRecord.do?id=1689
- National School Safety and Security Services: http://www.schoolsecurity.org/resources/crisis.html
- Readiness and Emergency Management for Schools Technical Assistance Center: http://rems.ed.gov/
- Clery Center for Security on Campus, Inc.: http://clerycenter.org/
- Trump, K. (2000). Classroom killers? Hallway hostages? How schools can prevent and manage school crises. New York: Corwin.
- U.S. Department of Education, Office of Safe Schools. (2009). Action guide for emergency management at institutions of higher education. Retrieved April 30, 2010, from http://rems.ed.gov/docs/REMS_ActionGuide.pdf