Campus Emergency Preparedness: Strategies for Content Creators, Tech Masters, and Campus Leaders

Presented by Lisa Catto

Future you is gonna be hella pissed at past you if you DON’T make the time to prepare for an eventual emergency.” -Lisa Catto

There’s been an explosion on your campus! Students, staff or faculty may be hurt (or worse). First responders are rushing toward the scene. Then an earthquake strikes, a hurricane moves in and a flu outbreak is tearing through the community at an outrageous speed.

More than likely you will encounter one of those scenarios, and less likely that all of them will happen at the same time. But no matter the scale of the emergency, Lisa Catto says you should be ready. Anything from a campus closure due to a weather event or the panic and confusion that follows an active shooter you’ve got to be ready to be ready.

The people on campus who would have to deal with an emergency aren’t always the people who are trained in emergency response. That’s why it’s important to have the discussions ahead of time. A little training and preparedness will go a long way when something goes wrong, Lisa explained.

There are many resources on the web to help train everyone on your campus who will need to respond in an emergency, like this one from FEMA for social media managers. Lisa urged attendees to find and take those courses online, and encourage those you work with to take that same training, or apply directly to FEMA to attend the training.

Lisa stressed that we need to make sure emergency preparedness is a priority with departmental leaders. If it isn’t, she said, keep going up the chain until you find a leader you can talk to. This is such an important issue for every campus, and therefore must be kept on the forefront of communicators. In the end, politics are secondary to safety of those on campus. Lisa explained that she meets every two weeks with the response team on her campus – “like clockwork.”

It can be hard to find the time to do emergency preparedness between all of our day-to-day responsibilties. Lisa recognized that many campuses are already doing much more with less. Even fully trained emergency responders say they wish had spent more time preparing. Some easy ways to do this include writing press releases in advance that deal with common campus issues and drafting social media messages you can use in an emergency. During an emergency – a time of high stress – you won’t be working at your best. The more you have done and can do ahead of time, the better your response will be when something arises on campus.

Lisa said her campus didn’t really think about emergency preparedness before the arrival of a new public safety office. This person introduced Lisa – and campus leadership – to the language and culture of preparedness. The learned all the new lingo, established the special org charts that go into place when an emergency happens, started exercises, revised their crisis response documents, and secured one-time funding (easier than ongoing funding, Lisa said) to get some needed equipment. Lisa explained that they learned what equipment they needed by trial. They held exercises and discovered, for example, the campus had no water storage facility. The solution? Buy giveaway water bottles in advance and store them in case they are needed. Another solution to the water issue was to have larger containers purchased by the dining facilities to be cleaned and repurposed, and then filled with waters and kept in freezers. Not only would it provide fresh water in an emergency, but it also worked to help keep the freezer colder and reduce the cost of electricity.

Lisa studied how people were communicating during an emergency on her campus, and was surprised to learn that most people got their information via email rather than social channels. In fact, parents of students contacted their children after receiving an email. Lesson: students DO read their emails.

These things may already be happening on your campus, but sometimes campus partners haven’t thought to involve the people who will be doing the actual communication in an emergency. If you don’t know who is in charge of emergency planning team on your campus FIND OUT! Get involved in their training exercises.

Catto recommends having regular response workshops with other departments, colleges, and schools on your campus. You shoudl also make sure leadership comes to some of these workshops and exercises. When they see how hard you work in an emergency, not only will they be able to support those efforts, their overall trust in your everyday work will also increase.

When it comes to responding in a crisis, Lisa offered a few thoughts. One is to make sure that the people who have to go out and talk to the media have the practice they need to be confident in front of cameras and microphones. And once they are trained, make sure their back-ups are trained and have that practice as well. Have volunteers ready to man social listening stations, and have public information officers from nearby institutions willing to come over and help so that they can talk to media representatives you have to work with after the emergency is over.

Lisa recommended a campus alert system that can be activated in case something goes wrong because it is an easy way to get information in front of everybody at the same time and broadcast on every screen and phone and clock on the campus at once. She also suggested having a central blog set up that will be updated with information, allowing you to direct all inquiries to that site. For phone inquiries, Lisa suggested sending all of them to a place with a recorded message that would then direct people to that blog site. Lisa urged participants to talk about this in advance with the communicators on your campus. Ask, who has access to social channels? Who can access web assets fromoff-campus if something happens outside work hours? Who’s going to say what and when? Planning can answer these questions and Lisa encouraged everyone to get involved in this planning now.

Lisa wanted us to work together to improve emergency preparedness for everyone. She has set up Google document to help share info and ideas; contact her via Twitter for an invite.

Emergencies, by definition, happen unexpectedly. The only way to be ready to respond effectively and correctly is to prepare. Now stop reading this and go find your school’s emergency response plan!

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By Liz Gross

Liz Gross is the Director of Campus Sonar. Her professional super powers include designing and analyzing market research, applying social media strategy to multiple areas of the business, explaining difficult concepts in simple language, and using social listening to develop consumer insights and assist with reputation management. She received her Ph.D. in Leadership for the Advancement of Learning and Service in Higher Education at Cardinal Stritch University.