Testing Your Emergency Response Plan

Inside Higher Ed highlighted Hamilton College's recent 'hostage situation' drill to test its emergency response plan. This test was unusual both in its complexity and in its collaborative scope; the college's emergency management team and local emergency responders worked together to test their emergency preparedness and their ability to interact efficiently in the event of a crisis involving the campus.

Testing your campus's crisis response plans frequently and rigorously is key to ensuring that you can protect campus resources and recover speedily following a crisis, and as of July 1, 2010, annual testing is mandated under the updated Clery Act. Nonetheless, annual testing represents a significant shift in practice for many institutions. Nearly a quarter of higher education administrators polled in an Academic Impressions survey in January 2010 reported their institutions had not tested their campus crisis response plan in over five years. Another 13% said their plans had not been tested within the past two years.

"This finding indicates that a sizable subset of colleges and universities may be unaware of their crisis response plan's actual ability to effectively address a modern campus emergency -- a salient gamble in the wake of a series of high-profile campus crises."
Marla Whipple, Academic Impressions

To help institutions that are preparing for annual testing of their emergency response plans, we turned to Hamilton College's director of campus safety, Francis Manfredo, who shared with us lessons learned from his college's recent drill. We also want to share strategies offered earlier this year by a panel of leading experts at an Academic Impressions complimentary webcast (you can view a free archive), including Steve Charvat with the University of Washington, Cindy Lawson with the University of North Carolina Wilmington, and Eugene Zdziarski with Roanoke College.

Develop a Graduated Set of Achievable Tests

Charvat recommends developing a graduated set of achievable tests, starting with basic drills and increasing the complexity over time. You might even start with orientations and seminars -- these can include brown-bag lunches and informational sessions. These can be set up very easily and can be a way to review your plan informally or update key personnel on changes. Then ramp up your testing efforts through:

  • Short-term drills (such as a fire drill, lasting from a few minutes to an hour)
  • Tabletop exercises (an intensive, facilitated discussion of a specific incident that could impact your campus)
  • Functional exercises (from a few hours to a day or two, simulating an incident, using runners, faxes, and phone calls)
  • Full-scale simulation (involving your entire campus, and possibly the city and the county)

"Don't go full-scale unless you are already comfortable with the other levels of exercises. Even if you have done one in the past, it can be a real challenge to conduct a full-scale drill on a regular basis."
Steve Charvat, U of Washington

A full-scale crisis simulation will allow you to test your plan fully, but it can be very intensive to plan and quite expensive. It is better to start with short-term drills and tabletop exercises and work your way up. It can sometimes take years to reach the stage wherein a campus is prepared to execute a full-scale crisis simulation.

Schedule Regular Tests

Set a schedule for testing, reviewing, and revising institutional crisis response plans. You need to establish a structure for continually amending your plans based upon what you learn from practice tests and from evaluating the successes and failures of other schools' emergency management protocols.

Hamilton College, for example, has taken the following steps in their commitment to developing a disaster-resistant campus:

  • An emergency preparedness team (comprising key stakeholders such as campus safety, the dean of students, the chief financial officer, the chief of staff to the president, the vice president for facilities, the environmental health and safety director, and others) meets on a weekly basis, organizing regular tabletop sessions to help identify action steps for improving the college's preparedness
  • A silent test of the emergency mass notification system twice a week
  • One live test each term

Manfredo notes that this diligence has enabled the college to identify and correct potential flaws in its emergency notification system, both in the hardware and in their policies and procedures for emergency response, well before an actual crisis might occur.

Use Drills to Strengthen Critical Relationships Well in Advance

It's critical to establish relationships with key external stakeholders well in advance of a crisis, including local and state emergency management, first responders, business leaders, and relief and social service organizations, among others.

Charvat, Lawson, and Zdziarski advise that one way to begin cultivating these relationships is to participate in drills conducted by external groups such as city or county emergency management. Besides getting you connected, these drills can also yield valuable lessons on how to interact with these critical external stakeholders.

Opening the conversation can be as simple as placing a call and meeting to discuss your goals for the safety and security of your campus and how you can each assist each other. Hamilton College, however, recently took an additional step, reaching out to local emergency responders to stage a collaborative drill. Manfredo notes that this approach achieved two powerful benefits. First, it opened stronger lines of communication between campus safety and local responders.

"During a drill, you have so much to gain and nothing to lose. A real incident is not when you want to meet for the first time. You don't want to suddenly realize that you don't know the local emergency responder and you don't have clear communication links between your team and off-campus responders."
Francis Manfredo, Hamilton College

Second, the collaborative drill alerted the college's emergency management team to what information and support external responders would need during a crisis -- information such as:

  • Who is present in the facility where the crisis occurs, and who might be
  • Building plans (keypad access, rooftop access, etc.)
  • Where to set up a nearby debriefing area during the crisis (especially critical in this case, as Hamilton College's drill was a hostage scenario)

Knowing the information emergency responders from state and local agencies would request, Hamilton College's emergency preparedness team was alerted to steps they may not otherwise have known to take -- such as creating a system that would allow emergency responders to know who is scheduled to be present in a facility at a given time.

Don't Rely On Only One Approach

Charvat, Lawson, and Zdziarski suggest mixing up your drills and exercises annually, testing different functions, scenarios, and activities. This approach will ensure stakeholders become accustomed to responding to the variety of crisis situations that can affect a campus, including environmental, facility, and human-caused incidents. It will not help you to be prepared only for an active shooter if your campus is hit by a chemical fire.

"Too many organizations have crisis response plans drafted but fail to test the effectiveness of those plans in dealing with different crisis scenarios," Lawson remarks.

"The existence of a crisis response plan provides false security for colleges and universities -- merely reading it does not mean institutional stakeholders know their role in relation to others or instruct those stakeholders regarding how to interact with the necessary outside agencies."
Cindy Lawson, U of North Carolina Wilmington