The Golden State Standard: California Community Colleges Get Prepared

Of all the higher education institutions in America, community colleges are the ones most often overlooked when it comes to emergency preparedness. California, however, has embarked on an initiative that will ensure its two-year colleges will be able to appropriately respond should a disaster strike.

The tragic shooting that befell Virginia Tech on April 16, 2007 provided a wake-up call to all of higher education about the critical need to be adequately prepared for handling campus crises and emergencies. No segment of higher education is less prepared than our nation’s community colleges, which are often viewed as secondary priorities when compared to four-year institutions as well as K-12 schools.

Ironically, community colleges have the most open campuses containing the largest and most diverse number of students, faculty and staff, yet they receive the least amount of attention. In California, this fact became apparent by community college leadership and policymakers well before the Virginia Tech incident. A system-wide survey found there was a wide spectrum of readiness among our community colleges: some colleges were well prepared; some were on their way to being prepared; but some had a long way to go.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger stated at the 100th anniversary of the San Francisco earthquake in 2006, “We must plan for the inevitable. I have a simple rule — those who fail to plan, plan to fail. I will not let that happen in this state.”

Shortly thereafter, the Governor’s Office of Homeland Security provided a $500,000 grant to the chancellor’s office to develop a statewide program for improving the emergency management efforts of California’s community colleges — the largest higher education system in the nation with 109 colleges and more than 2.6 million students.

Community Colleges Providing NIMS, SEMS Training
Leading such a large system was a major challenge, especially when realizing that many of the state’s community colleges were gravely under-prepared. With this in mind, in 2007 the chancellor’s office officially launched the Disaster Resistant California Community Colleges (DRCCC) program. This was an unprecedented effort to support all 109 community colleges in establishing compliance with federal and state emergency requirements under the National Incident Management System (NIMS) and Standardized Emergency Management System (SEMS), as well as with the disaster service worker designation and responsibilities. Each of these requires educational institutions to conduct proper training for all faculty and staff in addition to having adequate emergency operation plans.

The DRCCC is providing leadership and support to the community colleges in all four phases of emergency management:

    1) mitigation and prevention
    2) planning and preparedness
    3) response
    4) recovery

To date, the DRCCC has concentrated primarily on planning and preparedness efforts with an emphasis on training all college personnel as required under NIMS and SEMS. Multiple training workshops for the colleges have been held throughout the state on campus risk assessment, executive emergency management, crisis communication and train-the-trainer certification for various NIMS/SEMS courses including ICS 100, ICS 200, IS 700, IS 800 and SEMS introduction. Training for the remainder of the year is being planned for Campus Community Emergency Response Teams (C-CERT), emergency operation plans, emergency operations center management and pandemic outbreaks.

Schools Encouraged to Share Info, Develop Mutual Aid
The DRCCC established a statewide task force comprised of representatives from community colleges in each of the state’s six established regions. The task force has been advising the chancellor’s office in developing recommended emergency management standards and guidelines for the colleges while providing expertise and support for individual districts and colleges. Colleges within the regions and within their local communities are encouraged to form local mutual aid groups with other jurisdictions and emergency response personnel. This enables them to be better prepared for dealing with campus crises and emergencies, and for assisting with crises and emergencies elsewhere.

An important goal of the DRCCC is to improve the system-wide communication and information sharing among all community colleges. Developing a new “one-stop” Web site that provides everything a college needs to manage its emergency management efforts is at the cornerstone of this effort. The chancellor’s office recently launched this site (http://emergency.cccco.edu) that will serve as a model for the rest of the nation.

The Results? Better Preparedness and Planning
Since inception of the DRCCC, the system’s 109 community colleges have greatly increased their emergency planning and preparedness efforts, and their participation at training workshops has been impressive. All 109 colleges have prepared and submitted to the chancellor’s office a risk assessment of their campus.

Almost 1,000 key personnel representing just about every community college in the state have participated in the DRCCC’s various training workshops, including district and college chief executive officers, senior administrators, public information officers, police and safety workers, emergency planning and preparedness coordinators and emergency response team members. Training at the local college level has also increased exponentially, and the California community colleges are on their way to being in full compliance with training requirements under NIMS and SEMS.

2007 Wildfires Put College Systems to the Test
Our community colleges were recently challenged during the Southern California wildfires and torrential winds in late 2007. More than a dozen campuses were forced to evacuate and close for several days while people lost their homes and thousands fled for safety.

The community colleges responded extremely well in ensuring the safety of all students, faculty and staff while providing valuable assistance and support to neighboring communities. Several college personnel attributed their state of readiness and quick response to effective planning and preparedness training. Gov. Schwarzenegger visited colleges across the San Diego area and set up disaster response facilities at seven community colleges that were not directly affected by the fires.

Partnerships Being Developed Statewide, Nationally
The chancellor’s office and DRCCC are partnering with several statewide organizations on efforts to better prepare community colleges while also integrating them with other emergency management efforts. In addition to the Governor’s Office of Homeland Security and Governor’s Office of Emergency Services, the California community colleges are working with the Disaster Volunteering and Preparedness Department of the Governor’s Office of California Volunteers to identify ways to utilize community college facilities and personnel for responding to a local emergency or crisis.

In addition, partnerships have been developed with the Health Officers Association of California to develop statewide training and awareness for dealing with a potential pandemic outbreak. Finally, the chancellor’s office participated on an expert panel on emergency management in higher education for the U.S. Department of Education and will be working with them to develop a comprehensive emergency preparedness guide for higher education.

Prepare Now or Suffer the Consequences During a Disaster
U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings recently stated, “knowing how to respond quickly and efficiently in a crisis is critical to ensuring the safety of our students. The midst of a crisis is not the time to start figuring out who ought to do what. At that moment, everyone involved — from top to bottom — should know the drill and know each other.”

In late 2007, Gov. Schwarzenegger signed Senate Bill 166 that instructed the chancellor’s office to develop emergency preparedness standards and guidelines to assist community colleges in the event of a natural disaster, hazardous condition, or terrorist activity on or around a community college campus. Due to the foresight and proactive leadership of the chancellor’s office, we were already well on our way toward being in compliance with the legislation by the time the bill was signed.

We are proud and thankful of the tremendous progress being made by our 109 community colleges. Despite the enormity of the challenge, the California community colleges are on track to being fully compliant with all state and federal requirements, and serving as a model as the best-prepared community college system in the country.

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Dr. Tod A. Burnett is the vice chancellor for the California community colleges. He can be reached at tburnett@CCCCO.edu.

 

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