The Coronavirus and Public Safety: Lessons Learned by a Large Institution (So Far)
Here’s what works and what doesn’t across five broad campus public safety operational categories: personnel, plans and procedures, facilities, equipment and communications.
- Keep supplies on hand. Most people never cause catastrophic auto accidents, but they maintain liability coverage in the rare event they do because the consequences are so large. Hand sanitizer, respiration masks and other PPE have become unobtainable. What stockpiles do you have on campus, and what might you need? Consider hand sanitizers and sanitizing stations; protective masks, eyewear and gloves; disinfectants and alcohol wipes; protective suits; etc. Make sure these supplies are in the hands of officers and others who come in contact with the public or possibly contaminated areas, and make sure they carry them. As the crisis evolves, have staff start taking equipment, to include uniforms, weapons, laptops and other critical equipment home with them each day. If a building experiences an exposure, they could be required to report to a different location or if their job allows it, work from home.
- Acquire virtual meeting software and train people how to use it. EOCs may close, faculty may be instructed to deliver course matter on-line, and face-to-face roll call training for officers may not be feasible, but the need for joint operations, faculty meetings and training still exists. Virtual meeting software can facilitate continuity of operations during the coronavirus outbreak, as well as other emergencies. However, people need accounts and passwords and need to know how to use the software. Like CPX planning, this should be done on a regular basis so people can operate virtually and effectively when required. Requiring people to check in on a monthly basis can ensure they are ready to operate virtually in a crisis.
- Speak with one voice. As already discussed, goals and operations need to be prioritized to encourage coordination and maximum synergy. For large institutions spanning multiple campuses, the implementation of decisions can vary based on local interpretations, needs and past experiences. NOVA initially experienced variations between campuses of when buildings were open and closed, who was allowed inside them, and how certain operations were to be carried out. Any lack of consistency causes confusion, undermines the community’s confidence in its leaders’ decisions and jeopardizes the efficacy of your life-affecting decisions.
- Information dissemination is critical. People want information. They want control over their own safety and information is necessary for this task. At the same time, people are afraid and, absent information on the situation, will draw the most dire and often inaccurate conclusions, resulting in panic and low morale. A daily briefing is not adequate. People want information throughout the day, especially if they think it affects their personal well-being. It is impossible to provide hourly briefings, but several statements during the day providing status and explanations will do much to allay fears, dispel misunderstandings and coordinate desired behavior. Generate FAQs for police, emergency management, professors, college services, etc.; get them on a web site; and advertise the link. Naturally, you will want to limit your disseminations to facts and ensure vetting with your PIO, legal team, etc. Also, you need to identify the best platforms to disseminate this information. For instance, you will reach more young students through Instagram than Facebook. What other platforms are available to you? Emergency notification platforms, emails, campus radio and TV stations, local media, etc.? Different platforms will reach different individuals.
- Messaging is critical. Your institution has lots of audiences with different priorities, expectations, perspectives and concerns. One message will not satisfy all. Absent well-balanced messaging, a decision to cancel classes or deliver instruction remotely, while staff are still expected to report to their offices, may suggest the safety of one group is more important than that of the other. Messaging for various groups must address pertinent facts, provide explanations of decisions made, and address their potential concerns.
- Expect second-guessing and complaints. As a leader, you are experienced in dealing with Monday morning quarterbacks, people with different priorities and perspectives who disagree with your decisions, and people with an ax to grind. To this, add people’s fears and discomfort with changes to routine, and you can expect a chorus of criticism. Timely information dissemination, relevant explanations and good messaging can mitigate these criticisms, but they will never make them disappear. Get used to it; it’s part of a leader’s job. Just remember that people who are afraid and confused are “under the influence” so don’t take their comments personally.
- Get comfortable with technology. Life quickly becomes a series of emails, telephone calls, conference calls, webinars, text messaging and software messaging. You’re probably more adaptable than you think. As frustrating as it may be to not have face-to-face discussions and issue hallway assignments, with patience a successful transition can occur. However, remember, don’t get too comfortable. When using technology, you are creating potentially permanent records. Of course, most people know that emails and other written correspondence create records that are potentially subjected to the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) and may be discoverable, but don’t also forget that many of the conference calling software systems have the capability to record everything that is said and shared during each call .
- Keep your sense of humor but don’t let it bite you in the posterior. Crisis response is serious stuff, but keep your perspective by taking occasional breaks with friends. People can always find humor, even in dire circumstances, and this humor may lighten tensions and help people cope. However, remember others may be scared and confused. They may also have different values and perspectives, so make sure your humor is not misinterpreted. For instance, a senior official, in an attempt to bring some levity to a meeting made a light comment about the scarcity of toilet paper. While most laughed, a few complained the joke made light of a serious situation (no butts about it)!
We Will Get Through COVID-19
The coronavirus has had and will continue to have major short- and long-term impacts on public safety at NOVA and at large institutions of higher education throughout the country and the world. The deaths, illnesses, and both social and economic costs are steep and tragic. On a positive note, we are facing this trial, and the lessons we have learned will allow us to emerge stronger and more capable of addressing this and other crises in the future.
Daniel A. Dusseau is chief of police and Lt. John M. Weinstein is the eastern district commander for the Northern Virginia Community College Police Department in Annandale, Virginia. For additional questions to Lt. Weinstein firstname.lastname@example.org.