The Coronavirus and Public Safety: Lessons Learned by a Large Institution (So Far)

Published: March 26, 2020

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For both large and small institutions of higher education, the COVID-19 crisis has created radical changes in planning as well as the delivery of services, human interactions, emergency response protocols and the continuing demand for information. This dynamic environment, which is characterized by change, fear, uncertainty and new concerns (e.g., officer safety, employee morale) has demanded both institutions and the people who work and matriculate at them adapt to new, widespread and often uncomfortable situations that affect every facet of their activities.

Here are some of the lessons Northern Virginia Community College (NOVA) has learned so far from our response to the coronavirus.

Public Safety Intimately Involved in College’s Response to COVID-19

With almost 80,000 faculty, students and staff located on six campuses (and three centers) in four quasi-urban jurisdictions, the provision of timely and effective public safety at NOVA has required extensive planning, detailed coordination and significant flexibility.

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The college went to the online delivery of all instruction and services, limited the presence on campus to selected essential personnel and cancelled all face-to-face activities, including graduation ceremonies. Additional personal protective equipment (PPE) has been issued to campus police officers who remain on duty, despite the fact that some are self-quarantined due to contact with potentially COVID-19-infected persons.

NOVA public safety, which consists of the police department and the office of emergency management and safety, has been intimately involved in NOVA’s overall response. In addition to normal patrol and planning functions, NOVA’s public safety offices have added areas of responsibility to include identifying and monitoring persons who have been or may be infected with the coronavirus, investigating their activities and contacts to identify other potential infected persons, controlling access to buildings, responding to potentially infected persons, issuing daily situation updates and coordinating with facilities staff who clean and disinfect buildings.

NOVA brought senior college officials together in an emergency operations center (EOC) to share information, coordinate responses to emerging developments and develop best practices to deal with this unique situation. The EOC operated for 48 hours in the traditional EOC format, with participants in a single location. Knowing that social distancing was necessary, the EOC, seamlessly transitioned to a virtual model for weeks where it continues to evolve and provide valuable coordination far beyond traditional safety and security.

In this rapidly changing environment in which we are confronting new and evolving issues and problems, we have developed many insights into what works and what doesn’t across five broad operational categories: personnel, plans and procedures, facilities, equipment and communications.


  1. Define “essential personnel.” Specific responsibilities exist for essential personnel, such as who has access to a campus during an emergency. Everyone likes to think his or her contribution to the enterprise at hand is critical and therefore essential, and from a systems integration perspective, they are. Faculty and administrators are critical, so are facilities, the police, IT and the cleaners. The essential nature of one’s contribution depends on at least three factors: is the service required to achieve the organization’s mission, can anyone else provide the service, and must the service be performed on the campus? Police are essential because they alone are sworn/tasked to protect the campus and their work is campus-centered. Faculty instruction and staff services can be provided online/remotely so, despite the critical nature of their contribution to a school’s mission, they may not be deemed essential. Has your institution actually established criteria to be used to designate a position as essential? Furthermore, when were these criteria and definitions last reviewed? Twenty-five years ago, IT was less essential than it is today. This week, with the college going to the remote delivery of all instruction and services, IT personnel are more essential than they were even last week. Essential personnel designations may also evolve as the crisis evolves. In a pandemic, cleaning staff may become essential.  
  2. Infectious diseases don’t respect first responders or titles. As first responders, we are trained and expected to put the well-being of the community we serve ahead of our own safety. This caretaker function does not shield us from the fact that we too may become ill and disabled while providing these services. Nor can we assume senior personnel are immune. NOVA’s chief of police and director of emergency management and safety were both forced to self-quarantine due to exposure to an individual who was potentially infected with the coronavirus.
  3. Pace yourself and stay flexible. Individuals confronting new situations and uncertainty tend to rely upon past practices and, to the extent these procedures prove wanting, throw themselves into the task at hand. Encourage new and well-thought-out approaches to unique events; employ what you can from the old, but be ready to adopt new solutions. Innovation is always unsettling, but trying to force old solutions on new problems is a sub-optimal strategy. Furthermore, pace yourself. If you burn yourself out or let yourself be overwhelmed with new stimuli, your productivity will decline. Who will cover for you?
  4. Designate and cross-train back-ups. People specialize in complex organizations to provide excellence in the performance of their respective missions. However, the sudden absence due to COVID-19 of large numbers of people or specific individuals in positions of leadership can bring the organization’s operations to a halt if nobody is capable of stepping in to take their places. As noted above, NOVA’s police chief and OEMS director were forced to self-quarantine. Of course, they can perform many functions from home but may not have access to all the information needed to do their jobs. Designate back-ups and ensure deputies are read into ongoing operations. Additionally, be sure colleagues are familiar with their peers’ responsibilities to maintain capability.
  5. Use the buddy system to keep each other safe. First responders facing a pandemic are using new protocols for personal interactions and have new equipment (e.g., respirator masks, protective eyewear, alcohol wipes) to enhance personal safety. However, people tend to rely on habit and may forget to use new PPE, wipe down cruisers after transports, etc. Designate shift buddies to remind each other to execute these safeguards.

Plans and Procedures

  1. Prioritize and align goals. Rethink your mission. For the crisis, law enforcement in the traditional sense will be severely diminished. Not only will police officers want to minimize contacts with others, crime will decrease in the initial phases as all of society adjusts and minimizes contacts with each other. Different campus entities have different priorities and may exhibit different and seemingly conflicting actions. For instance, locking classroom and office buildings may keep people out, discourage close concentrations of people and prevent the spread of infection. At the same time, allowing contractors and facilities personnel into the buildings to complete needed work, made easier in the absence of inhabitants, if not carefully controlled, contradicts this goal. Limiting access to buildings may be wise, but what if this policy limits needy students from accessing services of food bank resources? Different campus actors have different priorities, so they advocate different and even conflicting policies. Establish mechanisms to prioritize goals and standardize implementing activities across the institution.
  2. Conduct a command post exercise (CPX) and other drills. Athletes talk about muscle memory to describe countless hours of training that allow them to perform consistently at the highest levels without having to think about it. Has your campus ever put together senior leaders to “war game” a response to a pandemic, an active shooter, an earthquake or a denial of service attack? A crisis is a bad time to start wondering what needs to be done. Each of the major actors (e.g., finance, deans, IT, facilities, police, OEMS, the PIO) have different goals, perspectives and capabilities, and these goals vary during the four phases of a crisis (i.e., prevention, response, mitigation and recovery). Sitting down to discuss needs, priorities, operations and concerns among key campus (and external) actors in a CPX will help develop the ability to deal efficiently and effectively with a crisis.
  3. Update policies, plans and MOUs. Does your institution have a policy on infectious diseases, and if so, when was it last reviewed? The current pandemic may make elements of your infectious diseases policy seem inadequate, but it will also affect other policies such as critical personnel criteria and warehouse inventory control timelines and procedures. In addition to campus plans and policies, review mutual aid agreements. What are your options if you lose staff? Having MOUs with other Colleges, local law enforcement and emergency managers along with a contract security option all should be in play. Assistance from outside, likely available for an isolated event, may not be available in a regional or national crisis. What then?
  4. Develop back-up plans. Helmuth von Moltke the Elder said “…no plan of operations extends with any certainty beyond the first contact with the main hostile force.” You may have updated your plans, consistent with numbers 7 and 8 above, but what happens if your plan fails? For instance, NOVA set up its EOC but had to move to remote operations, and with some new personnel, when a member developed virus symptoms. In short, an effective back-up plan allowed the college to continue EOC operations when its physical EOC was forced to shut down. In a small police or security department, what happens if a large number of officers becomes infected and unavailable to perform their duties? Do you have emergency plans with local agencies, plans to modify schedules and shift officer assignments, etc.? No doubt these can be done on the fly, but these problems, if not anticipated with applicable back-up plans, will take time and attention away from other current problems. NOVA has centralized dispatching with a designated backup on a second campus. When it became a possibility that neither space might be accessible, backup plans were assessed to determine if the college could sustain dispatching remotely and look at other options. Ask yourself if all your plans all building dependent?
  5. Identify EOC operational standards and priorities. What are the key operational variables that need to be watched, and is there a standardized way of documenting results? For instance, one likely key pandemic response variable is the number of people suffering symptoms. Beyond the number of potentially infected, one might also need to know the date they started to suffer symptoms; whether they constitute a high, medium or low risk (and what are the criteria); places they’ve been on campus; people with whom they’ve been in contact; etc. In the physical EOC location, where, how and by whom are these data compiled? How often must they be updated? With whom may this information be shared? How are these data compiled and disseminated in the virtual EOC?
  6. Promote agile decision-making. Effective decision-making requires far more than the availability of data. It also requires regular team meetings where perspectives and priorities are shared and even debated. Also, be wary of choking on too much data. There is a strong tendency when dealing with the unknown to wait for more data to provide a fuller picture or to confirm one course of action over another. The insistence on certainty is a prescription for inaction. Plan on making decisions with the information at hand and move forward; then you can make needed adjustments as more data become available. Declarations of health emergencies by governors or others with such authority will occur with broad statements, such as “gatherings of 10 or more are banned.”  Law enforcement’s authority and the role of the EOC will be confusing and likely unclear.  Can and should the police enforce the bans? As the “no more than 10 in one place” ban took effect in Virginia, NOVA closed its buildings to faculty and students. However, quick adjustments using the EOC and technology solutions allowed for the college to track cleaning crews, contractors and others who may be in a building simultaneously to reduce the incidence of too many people in a single location.
  7. Document, document, document. In addition to expenses (discussed below), the EOC and campus leaders will make many decisions together or alone, some with potential life-affecting consequences. Document who made the decisions and why. Which data were available, which were not, why was the decision urgent, etc.? Compile and store these data. Consequential decisions could generate liability lawsuits, and this information will become important. Even if no lawsuits arise, it is important to record how the crisis was handled to allow the compilation of lessons learned and best practices. This information will be important not only for your institution but for others who seek to learn from your experiences.
  8. Emergency declarations require funding. Track expenses early. An institutional response to a pandemic or any crisis is going to generate numerous expenses, such as overtime, utility costs, supplies and advertising. Keeping track of these costs as they are incurred may not seem like a priority, but their respective amounts, justifications, who authorized them, etc. will be important after the crisis to reconcile the expenses. Keep track of this information from the onset and use FEMA guidance for submission requirements.
  9. Understand HIPPA and OSHA. The right to medical privacy may conflict with the need to identify interactions of a COVID-19-infected person with others and the dissemination of information about potentially ill individuals.  Ensure first responders and college administrators understand the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPPA) and how these rules are affected by public emergencies. Even in a crisis OSHA requires employers to assess working conditions and provide PPEs or adjust the environment if possible. This includes a variety of people with changing conditions that include first responders in the field, people working in an EOC and cleaning crews.
  10. Develop emergency procedures for first responders and other key personnel. Have you specified procedures and equipment for officers to deal with an ill individual, for cleaners to disinfect a building, for facilities personnel when working in a building, and for officers to accept and store found properties (that may be contaminated) and to return them when buildings are closed? Be sure to rely on guidance from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and local health departments. You may be providing direction at your level, but using professional guidance in your decision will give you and others confidence.
  11. Make your staff smarter. Turn the crisis into an opportunity to ramp up training opportunities. In the initial phases of the crisis, you are primarily in a response mode.  However, as the new normal settles in, staff may have time for training opportunities.  Consider developing some “virtual roll call” training that summarizes critical policies and laws that always need to be reviewed.  Look for online training resources and take advantage of them when down-time occurs.
  12. Show your value.  Police and emergency management are operationally minded. That may not be the case with other entities at a college. Any operational assistance provided to help others get through the event is money in the bank.


  1. Understand the value of an EOC. The EOC is the ideal place to bring various entities together to facilitate information sharing and to coordinate decisions. Where is the EOC to be located? Is the building accessible to all? Are restroom facilities nearby? Is there adequate parking? Can people buy and store food there? Will operations be conducted 24/7? Are there plans to relocate activities if the EOC is forced to close or suspend operations? If a school has multiple campuses, will there be local EOCs or a college-wide EOC? Who will have access to the EOC and its information? Think creatively. Does the EOC have to be brick and mortar? As mentioned previously, NOVA seamlessly transitioned to a remote EOC for weeks and did not lose its value. (Article continues on next page.)

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Strategy & Planning Series
Strategy & Planning Series
Strategy & Planning Series
Strategy & Planning Series