EMERGENCY ALERT: The Anatomy of a Campus Crisis

We don’t have the luxury of choosing the date and time of our next campus crisis. Assembling a core team to oversee campus emergency alerting is mission critical. Understanding the underlying dynamics of potential threats and preparing for any crisis makes for good policy. This session will explore the anatomy of crisis, who should be involved in the procedures to follow, how best to alert the campus and how we are expected to respond to multiple campus constituencies during an emergent event on campus.


Emergency Alert! The Anatomy of a Campus Crisis

We don’t have the luxury of choosing the date and time of our next campus crisis. Assembling a core team to oversee campus emergency alerting is mission critical. Understanding the dynamics of potential threats and preparing for any crisis makes for good policy. We need to explore the anatomy of a crisis, who should be involved in the procedures to follow, how best to alert the campus and how we are expected to respond to multiple campus constituencies during an emergent event on a campus.

Often we initially think of a “campus” as consisting of many individual students occupying seats in numerous learning classrooms.  If we attempt to look from a very high macro altitude we would find that there might be more than 20,000 colleges, universities and research institutions in the world and some might have multiple campuses under their sphere of influence.  Looking deeper at a more micro level, a typical campus might have the following characteristics: it might span an entire state with multiple campus, 518 buildings, 15,880 acres of land, an enrollment of 32,000 students, over 10,000 members of the faculty and staff, often over a thousand campus visitors on a normal day, 15 individual colleges and schools, 400 student organizations, several sporting facilities that seat tens of thousands of people per event.  It goes without saying, from a risk management position that a prime mission of any campus is to maintain a safe indoor and outdoor environment for every constituency on that campus 24 hours a day.  Unfortunately, problematic issues arise from time to time on every campus that require instant reaction and action; the clock is ticking and waits for no one.

Emergent events can take any form and in the course of a year it is not uncommon to learn of a campus forced to deal with severe weather situations (snow, flooding, hurricane, tornado), an earthquake, power outages, HAZMAT situations, fire, burglary, assaults, and unfortunately much worse.  In these types of unkind situations campus first responders obviously move quickly to manage the circumstances but “others” on campus must also have a prepared response plan at the ready.  Those “others on campus” should be a formal team that supports the first responders but also the many constituencies attached to the campus as a whole.  The team will need to provide quick and precise information to the campus and beyond.  They must communicate with students, faculty, staff, visitors, news organizations, student families and the adjacent communities.  How and when you communicate can have significant ramifications as any emergent event unfolds.

A team of communicators needs to practice long before an emergency occurs!  Certainly, it would be difficult to role-play every possible crisis but by gathering this specific group together periodically to discuss their emergency methods is a solid idea.  Understanding how various emergencies tend to evolve will assist you in preparing how to respond and message.  Each person fulfills a specific and mission critical role in assisting the campus community during a crisis.  In any given emergency things will happen fast and people are forced to sort through vast amounts of information coming in from many directions.  They have to determine what is pertinent, what is true, what is threatening and what is important to precisely message and also how often to update those critical messages.  Those people on your campus during the emergency want to know what is going on, what they need to do… and if they are safe.  Tell them!

In this day and age of social media (think Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, etc.) I can assure you that hundreds of messages will be issued within minutes of any emergency.  The most important of those hundreds of messages is YOURS!  We all remember the grade school game where the teacher whispered in the first student’s ear sitting in the front of the classroom, “Becky’s dress is red.”, and then instructed each child to repeat and pass her message to the kid beside them in their row… we also remember that by the time that message got to the last student in the back of the room the message had changed to, “Spence is a stinker!”  The intended original message had suddenly been co-opted by others due to either an innocent misunderstanding of the message or outright ulterior motive.  Regardless, it was now a false message.  This is also a very real brand management opportunity; it can go well or it can get ugly quick.  In an emergency you have to control your messaging in a timely manner and also provide regular updates so that only true messages are being received.  The second you let down your guard someone else will become your unofficial voice, to your detriment.  One suggestion to see how this happens would be to do a hashtag search on Twitter of a recent or past emergency event on a campus and follow the stream of messages and look to see how the campus officials and campus “unofficials” messaged during the crisis.  I can assure you it will reveal examples of good messaging and flat-out bad messaging.  You can’t control ALL of the messaging but you CAN control YOUR official message and do the best to protect your brand.

Any institution’s emergency and communication team needs to include key first responders and campus communicators.  As the Boy Scout’s say, “BE PREPARED.”  They need to understand how each of their roles relate and support the others.  Serious discussions need to be held as to what constitutes an emergency; in other words, when does someone push the button?  Emergencies can vary in intensity, while at the same time a balance has to be found so as not to become seen as “The Little Boy Who Cried, Wolf.”   A hierarchy must be established as to who is responsible for various pieces of information and exact messaging and in turn how the local media and social media aspects are to be handled.  One person cannot handle all of the dissimilar functions.  Is your emergency messaging consistent across your local media, social media, official website, emails, and text messaging?  How and where will you handle “the media” throughout the duration of the event?  Have you already discussed with your local media contacts how best you will communicate with them so that they can not only do their own job but that they also assist you handling your own?  How will you track your own messaging via social media?  Do you have some pre-prepared tweets ready to use during any lull in new information gathering?

Developing a solid team that consists of not only first responders in the area of your campus (includes campus police, city police, county police, state police, fire departments, hospitals and ambulance services) but also your own administrative and support “key communicators” is truly important.  Every year or so, conduct a table-top exercise where the group takes an hour or so and has the campus police provide a scenario of an emergency situation on a timeline of emergent events and work through that scenario what each person will be doing in their specific roll.  Create a working document that explains the details and roles of each person on the team.   West Virginia University holds these periodically and has found it to be beneficial in understanding the stressful dynamics of an emergency situation and how we can best perform the important role of communicating to and protecting our campuses.

SpenceGraham   Spence’s Profile

For more than 30 years, Spencer W. Graham has led a myriad of teams of people inside and outside of the workplace. His engaging and down-to-earth style of organizational management seeks to maximize the efforts of each individual on the team in a manner that builds loyalty, passion and enjoyment within the group. As a Digital Signage Certified Expert, conference speaker and professional technologist, he was integral to the creation of a very large, high-tech digital signage network at West Virginia University that now spans four campuses with more than 125 digital signs, wayfinding, video walls, walls of honor, donor recognition walls and a 24/7/365 emergency alert feature in addition to standard WVU messaging and marketing content on the WVU Information Stations network. Steady and controlled growth of the network, budget management and team leadership are key components to the success of the WVU Info Stations, and as manager of operations, Graham has guided the network’s growth from 10 digital signs to more than 125 in eight years.

Graham has presented numerous Sessions and Industry Round Tables in previous Digital Signage Expos in Las Vegas and also at the University Business Tech Conference (UBTech) in Orlando and Las Vegas and at the International Sign Association Conference (ISA) in Las Vegas focusing on creation and management of digital signage networks in higher education. He serves on the board of directors for the international Digital Signage Federation on the Executive Committee and was the Past-Chairman of the DSF Education Committee and was nominated to the Digital Signage Expo Advisory Board End-User Council. Spence resides in Morgantown, W.V., and enjoys amateur radio (WT8WV), is an avid outdoorsman and spent a month in West Africa assisting on a medical mission project.


About swgraham2

Mountain Mists is an opportunity to develop some thought processes individually as I journey through this wonderful world; as someone who values highly effective management techniques and the art of leading teams; and through my association with West Virginia University as a professional technologist and network manager specializing in digital signage.
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