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How universities plan for emergencies

Universities must act decisively when disaster strikes.



By their very nature, modern universities are welcoming, open environments that are typically spread across many buildings, often in an urban setting where they are seamlessly integrated into the surrounding cityscape. They’re also bustling places where a wide mix of young adults crowd around every available space and move about freely, often with pack-sacks, handbags and smartphones in tow.

But their size and location, together with that hall-mark diversity and freedom of movement, also make universities unique in regards to the security and protection of the thousands of people who go there to work, study, visit and live. “Universities are not like a vertical office tower or an industrial complex that has been designed with security in mind,” says Mark LaLonde, director of risk solutions with Xpera, a Canadian company that provides risk mitigation and threat assessment services, and which counts universities among its clients.

In addition to having a multitude of windows and doors, most of which don’t lock from the inside, Mr. LaLonde says university campuses are also notoriously difficult to navigate, particularly for vehicles. They also rely on small unarmed security forces to monitor and assist large numbers of faculty, staff and students.

“People never think of universities in this way, but from a security standpoint they are very high-risk environments,” says Mr. LaLonde. “There is easy access, little screening of people or parcels, and a large transient population living and working in close proximity. Depending on the school and the department, there are also hazardous materials on site.”

Any and all of those particularities come into play when an incident occurs. And the list of potential emergencies is long. As with any large built environment, there is the possibility of power outages, broken water mains and other disruptions, as well as the more serious threats of a lab accident or fire. Any of these may require immediate evacuations and cripple school operations, in whole or in part, for extended periods of time.

Universities can also face extreme weather events and, depending on the region where they’re located, earthquakes. In addition, health-related emergencies – like the SARS outbreak in Toronto in 2003 and the Norwalk virus that hit Mount Allison and St. Francis Xavier universities in 2006 – may require a rapid response.

Then there are the types of crises that can haunt any emergency planner: physical or sexual assaults, or the ultimate nightmare – a mass shooting. Online threats, like the menacing comments posted on blogs and social media aimed at several Canadian universities in recent months, must be taken seriously and may also cause major disruption – last October, Wilfrid Laurier University’s Waterloo campus went into an hours-long lockdown after threats against the school were posted online.

These incidents came in the wake of a campus shooting at an Oregon college that left 10 people dead – the 52nd school shooting up to that point in 2015 in the United States and the 166th since 2013, an average of nearly one a week, according to the organization Everytown for Gun Safety. Though rare in Canada, such deadly incidents have occurred here, most notably at three postsecondary institutions in Montreal: Dawson College in 2006, Concordia University in 1992, and École Polytechnique in 1989.

For Canada’s universities, being ready and able to respond to any and all emergency situations is both a top priority and a major challenge. Though no two schools take the exact same approach, all have developed similar structures to govern and guide emergency preparedness. Couched in the broader context of provincial health and safety laws, which require employers to provide and ensure a safe work environment, most universities rely on joint committees that bring together administrators, faculty, students and health and safety officials to set policies and procedures for how to respond.

Darren Dumoulin, assistant director of security operations at Concordia University, says all large Canadian universities have detailed emergency management plans that outline the responsibilities for communications and decision-making in the first critical hours of a situation. For the most part, those responsibilities typically lie with well-structured, well-drilled crisis management teams that are strongly linked to the school’s security, communications, human resources and student services departments. “They work mostly in the shadows, but they can come together quickly to manage and control the response,” says Mr. Dumoulin.

Concordia’s team, for example, deploys during a prolonged crisis of a day or more in an emergency operations centre that is staffed by a dozen people and commanded by the school’s vice-president of services. Depending on the crisis, the team can also reach out to faculty experts from the university’s wide spectrum of disciplines, from engineering and business management to health and social sciences.

“One of a university’s great strengths is that we have all the experts, most of whom we can easily reach,” says Mr. Dumoulin. “That provides us with great leverage in our relations with local police and fire services, which we rely heavily on to respond to most serious incidents that occur on campus.”

Whatever the crisis, Mr. Dumoulin says the key to success is commu-ni-cating quickly and effectively with staff and students. “Communication is 90 percent of the game,” he says. “When there is a crisis, we work feverishly to get accurate information out to our people as fast as we can. We also monitor social media and respond to rumours or any information that is not right.”

At most Canadian universities, crisis communications involves official messages sent out using emergency notification systems. Depending on the school, that may include voice and text messages, RSS feeds and emergency alerts to its websites, office phones, campus computers, university email addresses, over public address systems, to social media sites like Twitter and Facebook, and to mobile devices of people who have signed up to receive them.

The University of Toronto, for example, has a comprehensive mass not-i-fication system that can be used in both emergency and non-emergency situations. “Our system is updated nightly in both our employee management and student services systems,” writes Althea Blackburn-Evans, U of T’s director of media relations, in an email. “Contact information found in those systems feeds into the emergency mass notification system (and) we encourage individuals to include and update their mobile numbers or emails to receive messages.” According to Ms. Blackburn-Evans, research indicates that the most successful way to communicate during a crisis is with “a layered approach that utilizes multiple modes of communication.”

One challenge with notification systems, however, is that they often require users to voluntarily sign up to receive the alerts. “Emergency preparedness is always a hard sell to young people who think they’re invincible,” says Mr. Dumoulin. “And, compared to the U.S., where this is a major issue, people here feel pretty safe.”

At the University of the Fraser Valley, only 13 percent of staff and full-time students were signed up to the school’s two-year-old system, dubbed UFV Alert, as of February 2016. “Although this rate of uptake is in line with many postsecondary usage rates, we would like to see more people on the system,” says Dave Pinton, UFV’s director of communications. He hopes publicized tests of the system, like the one held on Oct. 15 as part of an annual province-wide earthquake drill in B.C., will help to raise awareness. “We are marketing the use of UFV Alert and expect growth in registration to continue,” he says.

Officials at the University of New Brunswick also hope to see an uptake in sign-ups for the emergency alert messaging software it purchased last year with St. Thomas University, which shares UNB’s Fredericton campus. The software adds phone and text messaging capability and message templates to the school’s emergency alert system, which previously relied on email, social media, traditional media like radio and TV, and word of mouth.

“To date we’ve had 34 percent of our more than 12,000 campus community members register, which according to industry standards is quite good,” says UNB spokesperson Natasha Ashfield. “Now that we have an effective way of communicating with students and staff in the event of an emergency, we’re deploying initiatives to teach our campus community what they should do once they receive a message.”

Another emerging tool being used by universities for mass alert notifications is customized apps that staff and students can download to their smartphones and other mobile devices. One example is SAFEHawk, a two-way communication app that was customized for Wilfrid Laurier University. The app enables users to receive alerts about campus safety issues in real time, reach campus and local police services, and report suspicious activities.

“We’ve had positive feedback all the way around,” says Tammy Lee, associate director of the university’s special constable service. “We used it during a recent lockdown situation on campus where it worked very well and was a key component to getting important messages out across the campus.” She called the app “more immediate and engaging, with alerts and newsfeeds and places for students to voice their concerns. It’s more like community policing.”

Similar apps are being used by other universities, such as SAFEGryphon at the University of Guelph and SeQure at Queen’s University. Laurier’s app is also being developed in Mandarin, the most common language among the university’s international students.

For Bob Maber, associate director of emergency management at the University of Calgary, the use of apps also helps to get around the inherent problems with text messages, which he says have no guarantee of delivery. “Texting has serious flaws,” he says, pointing to the fallout of an alert message sent out by U of C in September during a massive snowstorm. “It was a disaster. Most of the university population did not receive the message, and we received no feedback to verify if anybody was receiving it. It can also cause huge confusion if messages don’t arrive in order.”

That’s why the school partnered with a Calgary software company to develop a downloadable mobile app called UC Emergency. Launched last year, the app provides direct messaging to users, can identify and locate users, and notifies first responders, campus security, crisis management personnel and Calgary emergency services.

“Most campuses are ideal places for apps because they have great wireless penetration and the population has lots of smartphones,” says Mr. Maber, adding that the response from the U of C community has been positive right from the start. “We exceeded our [previous] voluntary text messaging subscription list in six weeks, and we now have about 15 percent of the university’s population,” he says. The app has proven successful on several occasions, including a lockdown alert at the university’s Foothills campus after a man (who turned out to be part of a military exercise) was seen with a gun.

As with most plans and procedures, practice makes perfect when it comes to emergency preparedness and response – whether it be through realistic on-campus drills or simple table-top exercises. “You have to look at past incidents and consider the typical things that are most likely to happen,” says Darius Delon, associate vice-president of risk services at Mount Royal University. “But sometimes red flags are not connected. You really have to think hard and try to see things that you might have missed.”

Mount Royal held a three-day mock disaster in January organized by a private emergency preparedness company. The drill tested the school’s response to, among other things, a simulated on-campus arson incident.

Last year, the university’s physical resources team installed “grab-and-go” manuals (which indicate muster points and actions to take in specific emergency situations) in special cabinets located in classrooms, offices and other high-traffic areas. It also worked with other postsecondary institutions through the Campus Alberta Risk and Assessment Committee to produce a nine-minute video, entitled Shooter on Campus: Know You Can Survive. The video counsels students on the three actions to take in such horrific situations: get out, hide or fight.

For Pat Patton, director of campus security at the University of Regina and Canadian representative on the board of the U.S.-based International Association of Campus Law Enforcement Administrators, a big part of emergency preparedness for universities is listening and talking to staff, faculty and students about security. “The trick is to be proactive, to have good antenna and to stay on top of things,” she says. “When emergencies happen they can be quite devastating for an institution. You have to be ready and work fast in order to deal with a situation and minimize the impact.”


Mark Cardwell
Mark Cardwell is a veteran journalist and author based in the Quebec City area.
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