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Is Your College Prepared? Three Reasons Why Your Institution Should Use a Web-Based System to Respond to Emergencies

A mid-size university in Tennessee has the right idea when it comes to keeping its students safe. And other colleges and universities can learn a lesson from it.

East Tennessee State University (ETSU) is a campus with just under 15,000 students and one seemingly innocuous feature: a nearby train track that overlooks the campus. However, trains carrying hazardous chemicals routinely travel on this track and, should a crash occur, these chemicals could flow downhill and into the campus.

That’s why ETSU received a $175,000 grant to create a hazard mitigation plan.

“Universities usually are not required by law to have a hazard mitigation plan,” Andrew Worley, the university’s emergency management specialist, was quoted in the Johnson City Press. “Most of the time they default back to the municipality that they’re located in, but we felt that there were specific needs and concerns about a university campus that may not apply to cities and counties.”

The ETSU example illustrates why colleges and universities should routinely reevaluate their emergency preparedness and response plans.

Emergency preparedness plans for colleges and universities are unique compared to cities and corporate environments. The campus population is constantly changing with new waves of students entering and leaving every semester, and a college may have multiple satellite locations that fall under one purview. Managing daily operations across locations is a challenge, not to mention preparing for and responding to large-scale emergencies.

Emergency preparedness and response plans require frequent reevaluation of their underlying information management system. Given the complex incident and information management needs of colleges and universities, a web-based system is a must.

There are three primary reasons for a college or university to consider an updated, web-based information management system improving real-time information management, updating processes quickly as needs evolve and complying with government regulations.

Improving Real-Time Information Management

Today, universities need to be able to handle daily operational security in addition to coordinating response during an unexpected emergency.

In order to respond effectively to a large-scale emergency, college campuses should start by using an incident management tool to log events associated with daily operations, something as routine as a small fender bender on campus should be logged. Then, when a large-scale emergency occurs, personnel can seamlessly transition to monitoring and logging events associated with that incident.  This is where a robust incident management tool becomes key. For example, if a tornado were to touch down on campus, all events related to the tornado, from trees falling to power outages, should be able to be associated with one corresponding incident. This provides a comprehensive, real-time view for everyone within the campus community tasked with responding.

Updating Processes Quickly as Needs Evolve

Like the ETSU example, to be fully prepared, institutions must routinely take a holistic view of the health and safety needs of students, faculty and the community surrounding the campus.

As an example, this year southern schools may need to look at the spread of the Zika virus and adjust their action plan accordingly in case of an outbreak.

The processes and corresponding documentation surrounding new health and security threats should be structured in a way that it is easy to update and monitor it with minimum effort. Utilizing a web-based system allows institutions to adapt quickly to any safety concern that could affect their population.

Compliance with Government Regulations

The Higher Education Opportunity Act, which includes the amended Clery Act, requires all colleges and universities that receive federal funding to share information about crime on campus. A legacy information management system, where multiple versions of a document are sent to several people across the campus, increases the likelihood of errors that could lead to incorrect reporting.

A web-based system makes it easy for operations to monitor the events that have to be reported to parents and students and deliver those reports in a simplified manner that removes many of the risks of human error.

Campuses are essentially small communities with specific and ever-changing health and security concerns. Constantly reviewing and updating an emergency preparedness and response plan, including how information within that plan is managed, is essential to prepare for threats to security and well-being.

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