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Colleges and Universities: Factors to Include in Your Crisis Management Plan

Colleges and Universities: Factors to Include in Your Crisis Management Plan

Campuses are vulnerable to a wide variety of events. Attacks and intrusions tend to receive the most media attention, but there are many operational events that colleges and universities need to consider. Responding to them goes beyond simply running fire drills or testing PA systems.

Here’s a look at some of the key critical events that can occur on campus, and what you can do to best respond to them.

Types of Events

Operationally, your crisis management plans go into effect for a number of reasons. First and foremost, online outages can cause far-reaching panic on campuses. IT departments are expected to keep systems running, and they bear the brunt of everything from WiFi outages to critical outages that could leave networks down for several days.

Weather-wise, if you’re in the middle of the country, you face tornados. Toward the coasts, you see hurricanes and a variety of storms. In the west, earthquakes and forest fires are ever-present threats. All of these incidents can have widespread impact on everything from class schedules to the safety of student housing.

Moreover, universities often have research and science labs housing hazardous materials. In the past, universities have even housed nuclear materials. Chemical accidents can lead to injury, fires, and evacuations.

Lastly, university and college campuses are politically active. Sometimes, highly-charged protest events can turn violent. Emotionally-charged incidents can often lead to injury, and campuses need to be prepared for all circumstances.

In general, the day-to-day of college life is complex. There is a high concentration of humans performing a variety of interrelated tasks. Mistakes are bound to happen. As a rule of thumb, kick off your critical event management plans for any of the following:

  • Violence - active attackers, assailants, protesters, bombs
  • Environmental - severe weather, hazardous material exposure, fire or explosion
  • Technical - IT breach, system failure, access to online and electrical outlets
  • Medical - sickness, epidemics, injuries

Registering for Mass Notifications

Registering for mass notification alerts on campus is perhaps the most critical action any stakeholder can take, from students to faculty to the community at large. Many universities will prevent students from registering for classes until they’ve registered for mass notification alerts.

Individuals are often unwilling to walk through an unfamiliar system registration, and will do anything to avoid it. Your campus may need to force registration by blocking other critical functions until registration is complete. Adjunct and part-time faculty are harder to keep track of, but you still must ensure that they are plugged into the mass alert system with up-to-date contact info.

Registration goes beyond just students and staff. Large universities often house shops and restaurants on campus. Those related stakeholders must also be reached in the event of an emergency. The reach of mass alerts should extend to them and to community neighbors and organizations.

Timeliness and Redundancy

If you send an email, there will always be a percentage of students and staff who aren’t at their desktops or phones to receive the notifications. Likewise, if you make an announcement over a PA system, there will be a percentage of students and staff who won’t hear it.

The best alerts will combine several methods to reach people in a timely manner. Redundancy is key. If someone misses an email, they may receive a phone call. If they miss both of those, they might receive a text, or see a warning on a central announcement board. It’s better to flood individuals with warnings than it is to risk them missing a communication.

Compliance Requirements for Universities and Colleges

During a critical event, campuses are required to follow certain guidelines. The Clery Act details these requirements in-depth. Among the most important Clery Act requirements, universities must:

  • Collect and classify a crime - you’re required to report incidents as they occur
  • Annual security report - you’re required to detail campus security at least once a year and provide transparency through a report
  • Alerts must include timely warnings and emergency notifications - you are required to define which circumstances necessitate an alert or emergency communication, which key personnel responsible for carrying out emergency plans, and which communication channels you plan to use

A best practice for adhering to these compliance requirements is developing a campus-specific crisis communication plan that will help you walk through emergencies before they happen.

In general, test early and test often. On a campus, individuals are often stuck inside a silo. It can be disastrous when the emergency responders have no way of sending out important messages and instructions.

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