University continues emergency response work at campuses

With the scope of campus safety and security becoming more complex across the nation, Penn State undertook an analysis of 21 of its 24 campuses to assess each location's emergency preparedness and response capabilities.

“All of Penn State needs to work effectively together to safeguard our communities,” said Clifford Lutz, Penn State’s emergency management coordinator. “This analysis gives us a better understanding of what resources are available to respond to an emergency and to recover. This is a significant step in emergency preparedness.”

Penn State’s 19 Commonwealth campuses as well as the Dickinson School of Law in Carlisle, Pa., and the Great Valley campus are all part of the University's ongoing examination of emergency operations. Penn State Hershey Medical Center and Penn College are unique in their operations and have their own emergency response plans tailored to their communities. This current project for the 21 campuses is a follow-up to a University-wide emergency management assessment performed in 2009 by BDR, a Florida-based emergency management consultant. The project focuses on improving the capabilities of the University’s various campuses to cope with emergencies and promote a swift return to normal operations in the wake of a disaster.

The University follows an "all-hazards" approach to emergency preparedness, an idea that acknowledges the many similarities in responding to any threatened or actual emergency, regardless of the cause. While there is a wide range of potential emergencies that could befall a campus — from fires, pandemic and floods to power outages, cyber disruption and beyond — procedures can be put in place now that will help the campus community respond quickly and recover from any potential threat.

During Phase I of the project, which began in January 2010 and concluded in June, BDR developed standard templates for campus emergency operations plans and business continuity plans using state and local guidelines as well as those published by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), and the Higher Education Re-authorization Act. After visiting each campus and assessing current plans, the firm conducted a gap analysis of each campus’ emergency operations plans (EOP) and business continuity plans (BCP).

The second phase of the project began in July and is expected to continue through May 2012. During this phase, BDR will perform three primary tasks: a) develop emergency operations and business continuity plans for each campus that bridge the gaps identified in Phase I; b) design and facilitate workshop exercises to test planning assumptions, and develop a program the University can use to maintain and exercise its emergency plans going forward; and c) conduct workshops focusing on the actions outlined in the new emergency operations and business continuity plans.

“Universities need to develop programs of response and training that are effective, consistent and comprehensive,” said Brian Baker, regional practice manager for preparedness at BDR. “It is critical for campuses to be on the same page when it comes to emergency response, yet have approaches that are flexible enough to work for each location and take into account the very unique nature of each campus, its resources and its capabilities.”

A large part of this emergency management planning process also involves the establishment of relationships with local emergency responders near each campus, such as fire companies and municipal police forces, according to Brian Bittner, the University's emergency planner.

“All of the actions we are taking promote safer, less vulnerable communities that can cope with emergencies,” Bittner said. “Having emergency operations plans in place also can help prevent and mitigate potential disasters by making us aware of issues so that we are ready to respond before there is a problem.”

For more on emergency management at Penn State, visit online.