How One Institution Ensured its Crisis Management Plan Didn’t Just Sit on the Shelf

by Daniel Fusch (Academic Impressions)

The University of Wyoming’s emergency preparedness plan has become a template for plans at other Wyoming institutions and state agencies—including Casper College, which used emergency protocols based on the University of Wyoming's in responding to a tragic crossbow shooting incident on campus in December 2012.

In a recent conversation with Academic Impressions, Mark Collins, the University of Wyoming’s associate vice president for administrative operations, shared with us some of the story behind how he and his colleagues developed the institution’s emergency management protocols—and why their plan didn’t just sit on the shelf.

He also offered some practical takeaways for other institutions—see below.

The Challenge: From Draft to Effective Protocols

“In 2010, we had put together a draft of an emergency response plan for the university,” Collins recalls, “and it had already gone through a number of iterations. But it never felt done, it never felt like something we had full confidence in implementing.”

For the University of Wyoming, a 2010 Academic Impressions conference on emergency management held in Chicago, IL, proved the catalyst for moving from draft to actual protocols that would be implemented, communicated, and drilled. Collins attended the event with three colleagues, from university communications, student affairs, and environmental health and safety; together, their team was tasked with ensuring their institution would be ready to respond to a crisis.

At the conference, Collins and his colleagues compared their plan with the drafts of other participants from diverse institutions (public and private, two-year and four-year) and with finished plans provided by the panel of expert faculty, which included Steve Charvat from the University of Washington, the world’s first certified emergency manager, and Cindy Lawson (now at DePaul University), who managed crisis communications in the wake of the 1999 bonfire tragedy at Texas A&M University.

Besides the hands-on workshopping of draft plans, Collins recalls how the conference helped him place the plan in the larger context of an institution’s philosophy for how a crisis should be responded to:

A FOCUS ON WHAT’S REALLY IMPORTANT

“Cindy Lawson walked us through, step by step, how communications were handled at the Texas A&M Bonfire tragedy. It was incredible; people got emotional as she walked us through it. So many of her comments and so much of her advice remains with me to this day, and I weave her comments and ideas into the courses I teach on public administration—such as her comments to the president of Texas A&M at the time:

"Whatever happens, we’re going to do the right thing. We’re going to go all the way for our students and our stakeholders; we're going to focus less on what will concern our attorneys and our insurance underwriters and more on what we know is the right thing for our students and their families. For example, for some of the funerals, we’re going to load up planes and cars and go to those and allow our students to attend those important memorials. We aren’t going to worry about cost; we’re going to make sure we do the right thing. It was an awesomely powerful presentation.”
Mark Collins, U of Wyoming

Rolling out the Plan

After the conference, Collins and his colleagues were able to finalize emergency plans that included, among other details, a clear chain of command protocol, reporting lines, evacuation plans for every floor of every building on campus and designated building coordinators to assist in the event of an evacuation.

Since then, the University of Wyoming has not only drilled their plan regularly on their own campus but has also shared their plan as a template for state agencies and colleges throughout Wyoming, and has conducted exercises with local colleges to help engage their faculty, staff, and students in emergency preparedness. Those preparations helped Casper College coordinate crisis communications and response after an incident of on-campus violence in December 2012.

Practical Takeaways

It is always a risk for an emergency plan to gather dust, leaving an institution less-than-prepared when an actual emergency occurs—despite having written emergency protocols. The University of Wyoming has been proactive in working to ensure this doesn’t happen. We asked Mark Collins for some tips.

He suggested:

Make your plan look like a finished product.
Simply distributing a document, for example, implicitly invites staff and other stakeholders to continually edit, make marginal notes, request revisions. The plan might always be seen as a work in progress, rather than a finished plan for the community to actually rely on during a crisis—something to implement, test, and then revisit later.

To address this challenge, Collins contracted with a desktop publisher to produce a sleek final plan, professionally formatted and illustrated. Distributing that version gave stakeholders the confidence that this was an actual final plan that the institution intended to take seriously.

Make the plan easy to carry -- so that it is easy to access and use.
Far from just sitting on the shelf, the University of Wyoming's is carried in a pocket. The institution converted its plan into an easy-reference pocket guide on emergency security procedures, roughly the size of a credit-card, and distributed this guide to thousands of copies to faculty, staff, and students during the initial rollout. The university continues to distribute it to students and their parents at new student orientation.

Drill the plan frequently.
Planning is useless without practice. “We’re constantly drilling,” Collins remarks. “You can have the best plans in the world that sit on the shelf, but if you’re out there using them and putting people on the frontlines through their paces…it makes a big difference.”

Additional Resources

Prepare your campus with these crisis prevention and risk management online trainings from Academic Impressions:

Risk Management Essentials: Non-Student Minors on Campus
Managing Student Threats and Risk: Effective Policies and Practices