Hazard Mitigation: College Emergency Response Planning 101
Creating a college-specific plan and working with local jurisdictions can greatly improve emergency management and hazard mitigation efforts on your campus.
Hazard mitigation has often been one of the more neglected components of emergency management in the higher education setting. Colleges and universities spend a lot of their time, and rightfully so, on training, exercising and preparing their populations to respond to emergencies on campus. However, it is also important to implement hazard mitigation strategies to create a more resilient campus community.
Hazard mitigation is generally defined as the implementation of programs and projects to lessen the impact and potential loss of life resulting from a disaster or emergency. Hazard mitigation projects can include building safe rooms to safeguard against a tornado, instituting crime prevention through environmental design (CPTED) techniques or expanding the size of drains and culverts on campus to decrease the impact of a flash flood. A congressionally-mandated independent study by the Multihazard Mitigation Council (MMC) discovered that every dollar spent on disaster mitigation saves society an average of four dollars in recovery costs.
One of the most important aspects of hazard mitigation is the creation of a plan. This plan provides an overview of potential hazards, based on risk and vulnerability assessments, and strategies for preventing or lessening the impacts of those hazards. As with many plans, the planning process is often just as important as the actual plan.
Colleges Must Participate in Local Emergency Response Planning Process
Local jurisdictions are required to have a hazard mitigation plan and to update it every five years, according to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). While each state accomplishes this task in different ways, it is important for institutions of higher education to ensure they are able to participate in their local jurisdiction’s hazard mitigation planning initiatives.
Participation in local hazard mitigation planning efforts allows college and university emergency management personnel to garner a better understanding of the capabilities of their surrounding jurisdictions. Participating in the local hazard mitigation planning process also provides a tremendous opportunity to build relationships with representatives from public safety and other local government agencies.
Steve Harris, director of the office of emergency preparedness at the University of Georgia, notes that participation in the local jurisdiction’s hazard mitigation planning process provided an opportunity for “positive collaboration with our county emergency management officials.”
Colleges and universities usually have the same overall hazards as their surrounding jurisdiction. The hazard mitigation planning process provides a forum for these hazards to be identified and discussed with other public safety and government personnel. Through these discussions, colleges and universities may discover unknown resources that are available to them during a disaster. Conversely, they may become aware of the shortage of needed resources, which were previously assumed to be available during an emergency or disaster event. This would identify resources that the college or university may need to secure through different means.
Creating a Campus-Specific Plan Has Many Advantages
In addition to participating in the local hazard mitigation planning process, it would be beneficial for colleges and universities to develop their own hazard mitigation plans. These plans can be helpful both to facilitate collaboration with other members of the campus community and to initiate conversations regarding the need for projects and programs that could increase the overall resiliency of the campus community.
The following are six reasons why developing a campus-specific hazard mitigation plan is beneficial:
1. Improved Collaboration
Increasing campus collaboration is perhaps the most important reason for creating a college or university-specific hazard mitigation plan. Bringing campus partners together is always a great way to forward the cause of emergency management and should always include a multitude of partners who would be important during a disaster. Include stakeholders from parking and transportation, plant operations and facilities, housing and residence life, student affairs, emergency management, campus police/security, athletics, and environmental health and safety.
2. Identification of Hazards and Vulnerabilities
One of the first steps of the hazard mitigation planning process involves identifying potential hazards a campus could face, and, secondly, identifying the vulnerabilities your campus has with regard to those hazards. Hazards that are a high or medium priority to your campus may be a lower priority to the surrounding jurisdiction.
“We decided to have our own plan, since we believe the campus-specific threats are different enough from the city that we would need our own plan,” says Anne Widney-LeSage, director of emergency services at the University of California, Irvine.
Identification of hazards and vulnerabilities should be the basis for emergency planning initiatives.
3. Plan Addresses the Specific Needs of Your Campus
Instead of having your strategies rolled into an overall jurisdictional plan, developing your own hazard mitigation plan gives you the opportunity to develop mitigation strategies that specifically meet the needs of your campus.
“The mitigation, preparedness, response, and recovery measures need to be specific to our campus and not just to the city,” says Widney-LeSage.
4. Plan Provides a Strategic Road Map
This “road map” allows for emergency managers to identify projects and programs that could benefit their campuses, identify timelines for implementing projects and encourage campus community buy-in right from the very beginning of the planning process.
By bringing a variety of campus partners to the table, you will inherently get an outsider’s (non-public safety) perspective on projects and programs. If the campus partners agree on the need for certain mitigation projects, their willingness to participate in the implementation of those projects will likely increase.
5. Aligns Strategies with Institutional Planning Efforts
Hazard mitigation plans are a great opportunity to integrate mitigation strategies within the larger institutional planning efforts. For example, at Kennesaw State University, hazard mitigation efforts are discussed side-by-side with sustainability and continuity efforts on campus.
Some of the identified mitigation projects can be partnered with a campus sustainability pursuit to increase the overall success of the initiative.
6. Process Provides Documentation for Grants and Other Funding
In order to accomplish some of the larger, more expensive mitigation efforts that you and your campus partners have identified, the hazard mitigation plan provides an important reference document for grant applications. While grant funding can be different from state to state, having a previously documented need of a project or resource can often increase the likelihood of being awarded grants.
The hazard mitigation plan can be used as a repository of potential projects that might not be able to be funded immediately but might be funded in the future through grant or other funding mechanisms.
Take Advantage of These Opportunities
Hazard mitigation planning offers a tremendous opportunity for campus emergency managers to both participate in the emergency planning process of their surrounding jurisdictions and to build rapport on their own campuses through the development of college or university-specific hazard mitigation plans.
Mitigation allows the campus community to work together to identify potential hazards, to identify potential strategies to prevent or lessen the impact of those hazards, and to increase the visibility of the emergency management program on campus.
James Westbrook is the Assistant Director of Emergency Management at Kennesaw State University, a university with a student population of over 35,000 in Metropolitan Atlanta. Katy Westbrook is the Owner/CEO of Lux Mitigation and Planning Corp., an emergency management consulting firm dedicated to local hazard mitigation planning and volunteer management.