Our Biggest Campus Threat: The Economy

Budget cuts are setting campuses up for a risk management disaster.

No matter what region of the nation we live in, most of us in the United States face some kind of threat from disaster or emergency everyday.  The one threat I haven’t seen generate much discussion is the economy. 

The economic crisis of 2008, now entering its third year, presents a severe and on-going risk management threat to our higher education institutions. As a man-made disaster, this threat compounds the existing threats we face every day.

One of the first impacts of the economic crisis is decreased staffing with an increased workload; asking our staff to do more with less money, and consolidating tasks. I was reflecting on what world-renowned risk management expert Gordon Graham taught me when cutting corners becomes an acceptable option – “predictable is preventable.”

Pay For Staff Training, Drills Now or Pay in Court Later

 In this economic crisis, our emergency response personnel and emergency managers face increased work intensity, pressures, and stress. The secondary impacts are cuts made to training and prevention programs for our first responders, facilities staff, hazardous materials personnel, and others because training and continuing education can be perceived as cost prohibitive. Couple the reduction of training with increased work intensity, and the risk of human error is a natural consequence.

Some campus administrators will give in to this temptation and cut corners – denying or cutting funds for training and emergency programs. As a result, emergency plans are not updated or revised, and emergency exercises are not undertaken. Also, the lack of annual refresher training geared toward maintaining certifications and standards means that staff may not be able to meet all of the statutory requirements under the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) standards. This element alone substantially increases civil liability for universities in work-related injury. For every dollar cut in training, risks and liabilities increase; you’ll pay for it later either in assessed damages, fines or reputation.

High Risk, Low Frequency Events are Particularly Troubling

The impacts of the economic crisis expand significantly when your emergency response workforce faces a natural disaster like a hurricane, flood, tornado or earthquake. These types of incidents, under the Gordon Graham Risk Matrix, are known as “high risk, low frequency” events; the incident type most likely to contribute to a work-related catastrophe (injury or death). This risk, associated with decreased employee readiness, increased employee stress, work intensity, and reduction in employee training create a risk management threat to the entire institution. 

Under a process Gordon Graham calls “Recognition Primed Decision Making” or (RPDM), people with experience and training do things right. However, if a person has not experienced the task they are now encountering, or do not experience it on a regular basis, then the brain cannot quickly locate a match (past experience). Graham concludes, “Without a match, you are in route to serious problems,” especially in “high risk, low frequency” events.  This is why exercises and training prime the brain, assisting emergency personnel in making good decisions under extreme stress for situations they may infrequently encounter.

Because disasters represent “high risk, low frequency” events, with a contributing economic crisis factor, the staff needed to respond are weakened (an impact of less training), and more fatigued (impact of increased workload). With increased stress, the odds of a work-related injury rise substantially.  When you place humans into situations with extreme risk, coupled with less experience and increased stress, you have a recipe for disaster.

Campus Must Resist Temptation to Cut Public Safety  

As we enter the third year of economic crisis, we need to keep focus on resisting the temptations to cut corners when it comes to institutional risk and vulnerability. Cutting corners, whether it is training, standards, hiring personnel, or safety, is always a choice. Under the economic stressors we face, universities need now more than ever, to be making good choices that do not increase risk or vulnerability, or campus safety.


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About the Author


With more than 30 years experience, David is a Certified Emergency Manager (CEM) currently administering the emergency management program at Santa Clara University in the heart of the San Francisco Bay Area's Silicon Valley. David managed the UCLA Office of Emergency Management for seven years and pioneered the development of the campus' award-winning "BruinAlert" system. David championed development of emergency plans, policies and procedures in the aftermath of Virginia Tech in 2007 and consults higher education institutions on emergency management issues. David is a subject matter expert in mass casualty incident management, emergency notification systems, comprehensive plan development, emergency organization, EOC design and operations, crisis communications, threat and vulnerability assessment, disaster recovery, grant administration and auditing. In 2009, David and other campus emergency managers provided consult in the development of the first incident management course developed by FEMA/EMI specifically for higher education (IS-100HE, Introduction to the Incident Command System (ICS) for Higher Education). Note: The views expressed by guest bloggers and contributors are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to, Campus Safety magazine.

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