Pandemics, Tsunamis and Earthquakes

Pandemics, Tsunamis and Earthquakes

Navigating campuses through the unexpected

The pandemic has been a challenging time for everyone in higher education, especially those in charge of emergency management and public safety.

At the same time as the pandemic, many were dealing with safety and emergency concerns ranging from day-to-day disruptions to other major events. For example, at the University of Alaska, while we were dealing with the coronavirus, we were also hit with two tsunami warnings and still recovering from the aftermath of an earthquake. This is not abnormal – the whole point of emergency preparedness is to be ready when these events occur.

The emergency planner at the University of Alaska has always been to help the local campus police and safety staff across the system to be successful. This means enabling everyone to achieve their mission of keeping students and staff informed, and safe at every level of the university. Based on this experience, here are some tips for ensuring that emergency management and risk services for university systems – large or small – are collaborative, successful and guarantee safety for all, despite dealing with the unexpected.

Be able to communicate with different geographies. The University of Alaska system is home to three universities and 13 campuses, spread across a state with very few roads and a land mass equivalent to 20% of the entire continental United States. Each of these campuses, of course, has its own unique needs.

They also have vastly different experiences – an emergency may affect the entire system, but most of the time every campus needs its own unique alerts based on what is happening in that given area. For example, not every student needs to know about a loose moose on one of the campuses – only those on the campus affected should be notified.

When evaluating the types of technologies to use in emergency situations, being able to target groups that are geographically dispersed is a must. Sending messages that are specific to one campus to the entire system is a waste of time, both from the administrative perspective, and for the students and staff. Messages need to be relevant to those receiving them, or students, faculty and staff will not only lose interest, but may potentially disregard important or relevant information down the line, which can lead to safety risks. The more targeted a message, the better; it feels more personalized and builds trust among recipients that the information is relevant and accurate, enhancing safety for the school.

Having the right, reliable technology and templates on hand is critical. When the mass notification system was re-evaluated a few years ago, having the right blend of reliability and capabilities was important to university staff. Newly configured the UA Alert, powered by Rave Mobile Safety, as the University of Alaska’s expanded mass notification system and integrated it with multiple campus technologies.

When it comes to emergency management, having the newest, shiniest technology available in your school or department is not what is important – having the right tools that are reliable and always work is. That is not to say that some functionalities are not necessary, but in many cases they are.

For example, within the University of Alaska system, more than 100 people are authorized to send emergency notifications. The university system needed to enable role-based access to ensure that local campuses could send out messages relevant to students and staff. In addition, it was important that the system included processing of IPAWS/Common Alerting Protocol (CAP) for weather and civil emergencies.

It is not just about having reliable technology, but being prepared to send out alerts the second something happens. This requires going through a list of scenarios and making sure there are pre-recorded messages that may be used. The University of Alaska has a robust configuration of more than 300 message templates that are multi-modal, including popups, digital signage, standard social media, text messaging and email. When an emergency situation arises, there are templates ready to go, saving valuable time on messaging and programming. By being prepared with these templates, information gets out quicker, which can ultimately result in saving time, resources and in some situations, lives.

Dealing with more than one crisis at a time is inevitable. As with everywhere else, the pandemic brought new challenges to the forefront of campus safety as we began to plan and respond to the crisis. For the University of Alaska, and many others, this was not simply a matter of sending students home and then figuring out a reopening and communications plan.

With many different federal, state and local guidelines in place, often changing quickly due to the nature of the virus, crafting and facilitating university and campus guidance was challenging and time consuming. The university team helped each campus effectively figure out new mandates and guidelines. The university also collaborated with state and local officials to get appropriate COVID-19 support and reopen safely.

As if the pandemic was not a big enough challenge, university officials also managed not one, but two tsunami threats in 2020. This not only meant sending out messages to the right people, but ensuring that campuses were secure or evacuated. Since we had experience with tsunami warnings in the aftermath of the 2018 earthquakes, we were prepared and able to broadcast the threats to a number of community campuses right away.

Dealing with more than one crisis at any campus or university is inevitable, and public safety, campus safety, emergency management and other stakeholders must be prepared to tackle anything.

Whether a university system consists of one campus or many, those responsible for emergency management and communications must be ready for the unexpected. They need to have the proper tools and technology in place. By being prepared and making safety a collaborative effort, the people tasked with campus safety can be successful in their mission to keep students, faculty and staff safe.

This article originally appeared in the November / December 2021 issue of Campus Security Today.


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