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When Foul Winds Blow

Disaster struck Brevard Community College—and kept striking. Here’s what the administration learned about preparing for and recovering from unpredictable events.

By Al Little

Luckily, the college had a plan. Thanks to flexibility and forward thinking, this group was safely transported and housed. An overflow area had previously been identified for additional evacuees, and a generator installed the previous year guaranteed electricity for the medical equipment.

During the six-week period starting in mid-August 2004, four major hurricanes hit Florida. Brevard Community College, like many other institutions in the state, incurred significant damage and schedule disruption from three of the four. Luckily, its good disaster plan helped prepare the college, but many lessons were also learned in this unusual season of storms.

Most campuses have disaster recovery plans for information technology, but many have failed to create a comprehensive plan that includes physical plant, security, employee, and customer (student) considerations. Brevard learned a great deal about those issues from a nasty hurricane (and another….and another).

What are the Essential Operations?

Any emergency plan must consider all functions needed to ensure safe and secure operation during and after a disaster. Procedures should list specific tasks to be accomplished by each area in disaster preparation—maintenance, security, IT.

Hurricane evacuations are primary among the problems, with hordes of citizens evacuating, often landing on college campuses. Others simply leave town. Since it usually takes around 48 hours for a major evacuation, time is at a premium. Any preparation timeline needs to be backed up to get things squared away before staff evacuate or neighbors show up.

From access to funds to facility management, regular procedures should be established well before an event is on the horizon. Consider these key infrastructure questions:

  • Financial: What measures are in place to ensure funds are available for recovery efforts? How will employees be paid?
  • Energy requirements: Do procedures keep fuel supplies at an adequate level? Can tanks be refilled quickly? Are the emergency generators tested on a regular basis? Do facility inspections include looking for basic building safety items like loose ventilator cap bolts?
  • IT concerns: Do computer backups reside (physically or electronically) in multiple locations? Are computers adequately protected from inevitable water leaks? Is there a plan to quickly replace damaged servers, and is there an identified off-site location to run critical programs when oncampus operation is suspended?
  • Communication systems: How will the institution communicate with emergency workers? Who are the key players and contacts? Is the emergency communication equipment tested on a regular basis?

Communication is Key

That last issue—communication—is the single most important aspect of disaster recovery. Leaders must be able to communicate to effectively manage the situation, a major challenge in a widespread power outage. Brevard had relied on the usually guaranteed operation of cell phones as the main emergency communication link. But, unbeknownst to the college, the bandwidth from the cell phone provider was directed to emergency needs like police and fire departments. So even when power was restored and batteries recharged, cell phone service was unavailable. In response, the college changed cell phone providers so it would not have to compete for bandwidth.

Workers must be trained to function in the event that communication capabilities are lost. Multicampus colleges must train one individual on each campus to lead initial recovery efforts if they are isolated. Low-tech options—hand-held radios for short distances or couriered messages over long distances—are critical back-ups.

It’s wise to establish a telephone line for emergency communications, preferably out of the area in case local phone service is disrupted. An employee telephone tree distributed to each department will facilitate contacting every faculty and staff member after the disaster to identify any employees who need assistance. Establish one department as a clearinghouse for employees to report damage or injury once the worst is over.

Even after the disaster has abated, students and staff need to know what is going on at the institution. Make a list of television and radio stations to be contacted for updates; identify an individual to monitor those stations to make sure announcements are correct. The amount of disinformation is high in the time immediately following a disaster. Even with a good media plan, the biggest complaint Brevard received from students and employees following the hurricanes had to do with inconsistent or nonexistent messages in the media.

A Roof Over Their Heads

Communities look to campuses to provide safe shelter during major calamities. It is assumed that these shelters will be ready and able to accommodate those in need, so maintaining facility preparedness throughout the year is key. While last-minute checks before a storm are obviously important, they should not take the place of a quality, ongoing preventive maintenance program.

The actual management of the shelters during an emergency is an often overlooked component of a disaster plan. Even though the Red Cross typically runs the shelter, they are dependent on institution personnel to maintain facility access and control. Brevard maintains a security, maintenance, and custodial presence for each location. Generous custodial services are essential to a shelter—the amount of waste that evacuees produce is overwhelming. Brevard keeps custodial services for emergency shelters as a regular component of its outsourced custodial contract.

In addition to those workers remaining on campus to keep things running, other employees often take refuge in campus buildings. At Brevard, such employees are directed to the official shelter location. It’s a nightmare when individuals stay in their offices: security can’t keep track of who’s on campus and where, let alone spread out to protect people in numerous buildings.

Most citizens occupying a shelter understand it is merely a safe haven, not a national hotel chain. It’s simply a space to lie down or sit in—a structure reasonably safe from most hazards. HVAC will likely be shut down, electricity may be lost, and generators will likely provide only emergency power. A small percentage of folks, unfortunately, are demanding and unappreciative. Some even go as far as harming institution property. Individuals assigned to work at a shelter should be trained in problem resolution and dealing with difficult people to handle these situations with professionalism and grace.

After the Scare is Over

Depending on the severity of the disaster, the institution may be closed for a period of time, so any recovery plan should address aftermath issues. Brevard restricted access to all buildings until security made a sweep to verify a safe environment. Many employees wanted to go to their classroom or office and begin cleanup within hours after the storm. This can be welcome assistance, but only after the buildings are declared safe.

Most weather disasters involve massive amounts of rain. Water intrusion creates a long list of problems. Mold can grow quickly, especially when wet walls and floors are matched with high humidity (the absence of electricity and air conditioning makes for maximum humidity). Prior to the storm season, the college had purchased several wet-vacs and small generators to run them. As soon as the buildings were checked for structural integrity, Brevard cleaned up water, dried out carpets, removed wet ceiling tiles, and cut out wet drywall. Because maintenance could rush in and remove the water quickly, airquality problems were greatly minimized.

Taking Care of Staff

One of the other overlooked issues in disaster planning is the myriad effects on human resources. Procedures need to address the fact that everyone is concerned with protection of his or her property, and more importantly, his or her family. Brevard got ready by sending maintenance staff home a few days prior to the onset of hurricanes to secure their personal property. This allowed staff to work on college preparation in the days immediately preceding the storms.

Whether before, during, or after the storm, closings can wreak havoc on the payroll schedule. The first of the three storms hit on payday (as did the third); the second when timesheets were due. In each case, the college had to adjust procedures to ensure that employees were paid in a timely manner. Detailed procedures for processing payroll when the power grid or computer system is down allowed Brevard to meet storm-induced payroll challenges.

There will also be questions about employees’ pay while the institution is closed. Which pay classifications will get paid? How much time will the institution credit to hourly employees? How will employees with irregular schedules be treated? How will maintenance and security employees who work while the institution is closed be paid? The federal government will reimburse cert ain payments immediately before and after a federally declared disaster, but only if the written policy specifically provides for those payments. It’s critical to get those issues resolved ahead of time, or the expense of the disaster could multiply exponentially.

Getting Back to Normal

Resources

For more information on disaster planning and preparedness, check out these sources:

  • Mission Continuity Planning: Strategically Assessing and Planning for Threats to Operations, by Mohammad H. Qayoumi. Available at www.nacubo.org; $30 for members, $45 for nonmembers.
  • Before Crisis Hits: Building a Strategic Crisis Plan, by Larry Smith and Dan Millar. Available at the American Association of Community Colleges Web site (www.aacc.nche.edu).
  • Visit www.nacubo.org/x2748.xml for links to additional materials and guidance on emergency preparedness, response, and recovery.

Restoring normalcy in short order is the goal of any post-disaster plan. Cleanup work must be specifically identified, crews assembled, priorities assessed, and assignments made. It’s critical to keep students in mind when determining the appropriate date for resuming classes. After the third hurricane, Brevard’s administration thought the college could open in a couple of days, but officials reconsidered after realizing that students were not ready to return to a regular routine so soon. Brevard also established a liberal exception guideline for refunding tuition to students incurring damage in the hurricane. A widespread disaster creates great unrest, even after the initial mess is cleaned up. One faculty member commented, “In all my 30-plus years of teaching, I’ve never seen any factor impact my students as did four hurricanes in six weeks…the life appeared to be sucked out of them.”

As for post-disaster financial woes, don’t expect the Federal Emergency Management Association to be the savior. FEMA is a significant help, but the federal government will not come onto a campus a week later and write a check for all damages. The process for reimbursement is slow and bureaucratic and frequently ends in a payment significantly less than the actual repair cost. And remember that highly detailed records must be kept to meet strenuous FEMA reimbursement requirements.

While we may never see another storm season like 2004, disaster preparedness is more critical than ever. Colleges and universities cannot rest on prepara tion plans from decades past; disaster planning and recovery policies should be reviewed and updated annually, addressing specific threats for that particular region (be they hurricanes, earthquakes, mudslides, blizzards, or political unrest). It’s equally important to train employees in these procedures at least once a year. Otherwise, the manual will go on the bookshelf as a futile effort.

We can’t control the winds or water, but a well-rehearsed disaster plan can go a long way toward keeping the effect on the college community from swirling out of control.

Author Bio Al Little is the vice president of finance and administrative services at Brevard Community College, Cocoa, Florida.
E-mail littlea@brevardcc.edu