Hurricane Katrina helped convince much of higher education that there is a tremendous need for emergency planning. And many of us developed sophisticated plans to do what we need to do if an emergency strikes — resume full operation or get as close to that as possible, and do it in the least possible time. But what has happened to those plans since then and how prepared are we?
Earlier this week the Provost’s Office, working with the University’s emergency preparedness person, undertook a tabletop (simulation) exercise to see how well our plans would work in the case of a severe (at least category 3) hurricane. Overall, the plans were solid, but there were clearly lapses even though most were very minor. For example, there had been some personnel changes but our notification information was not updated accordingly. Clearly, this would not have been a significant issue since all of us were aware of the changes and knew how to quickly contact anyone involved in the office. But as we need to contact faculty, students, administration and staff, issues like this clearly magnify many fold. How often do we proactively reach out to all the campus constituencies to make sure our contact information across the board is as accurate as it needs to be. Likely not often enough.
Last year, when we were developing contingency plans for the possible flu pandemic, we reached out to all faculty to provide information on the tools provided by BlackBoard to help a class continue to meet if on -campus meetings were not possible. But emergencies can be less or more predictable depending on the type of emergency and we should regularly update the faculty on all the features of whatever classroom management system we use.
In the course of our discussion, we talked at length about how we would do all we can, remotely if need be, to maintain the academic functioning of the University in a serious emergency. Two areas where we spent considerable time were grant applications and payroll. For grant applications, we cannot — especially if the emergency is very local in nature — assume that grant deadlines will automatically be extended . For payroll, if an emergency comes at the beginning of a semester, it is not likely that every faculty member’s (or every employee’s), especially every adjunct faculty member ‘s, paperwork is already fully processed on our payroll system and yet it needs to be a priority to get everyone paid in a timely manner. At this point the discussion was going well and we seemed to have everything under control in terms of what needed to be done until… the lights went out. When the simulation included the loss of electricity (which could be a very local problem or a regional problem) we were not fully prepared. Our laptops might be fully charged but what happens after a few hours? Or what if internet service was down ... how would we connect to this communication’s lifeline. In the first case of the battery running low, the fix was easy. If we all had car chargers, we could charge the computer batteries by using our cars. The loss of internet service was more difficult but could still be resolved with an aircard. What matters most is that our simulation forced us to confront difficult issues and work through the resolution of key problems.
No one is looking for a serious emergency to happen. On the other hand, ignoring the possibility of an emergency make us much more vulnerable. We should all make sure our plans are as up to date as possible and regular tabletop simulations should for all of us be standard operating procedure.