Campus Emergency Response: 5 Cultural Factors Public Safety Agencies Should Know

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Recently, colleges along the East Coast watched Hurricane Dorian’s slow progress, conferring with emergency officials and in some cases, closing facilities and evacuating students.

It’s not just weather that can lead first responders to work with campus representatives. Active shooters, wildfires, flooding, protests and medical emergencies can mean local police, fire and EMS professionals become involved with campus emergency response.

Very little in a university setting follows a strict top-down approach.

If you’re called to respond to an incident at a higher education institution, it’s important to remember you are entering a different world from your own. Knowing a little about the environment and the culture can help.

  1. Decisions are made slowly and involve multiple stakeholders. First responders are trained to quickly assess a situation, decide on a course of action and execute. All this is done with an immediacy that recognizes lives may depend on it. Higher education, on the other hand, is not built for speed. Instead, most colleges and universities use a shared governance structure that favors committees, discussion, consensus—and time. It can take an entire semester or academic year to decide on a small change. Some students, faculty and even administrators in higher education may look skeptically at chain-of-command or paramilitary organizations such as law enforcement or fire, and that view can carry over into how they deal with members of those organizations. Very little in a university setting follows a strict top-down approach.
  2. Facilities are independent but not isolated. Colleges and universities operate largely independently on a day-to-day basis. They may have their own energy plants, their own police force and their own shopping and dining options. Yet these sprawling communities have porous borders. While access is restricted in some buildings, most campuses are open to the public, meaning individuals with nefarious motives can easily enter. Some campuses are set apart from the surrounding community, but many are right in the city, meaning main roads and walkways cut through the university property.
  3. Community members are young and diverse and may have special needs. Colleges often have large numbers of international students with varying levels of proficiency with English; these students may have very different understandings of law enforcement based on their home environments. In addition, administrators have seen the mental health needs of students dramatically increase in recent years, with some studies saying between a quarter and a third of college students experience mental health difficulties. Just holding a campus emergency response drill can be traumatic for some students. Also, most students at these institutions are between 18 and 22 years old—an age and time of life not known for its good decision-making.
  4. Students often exercise their First Amendment rights. Civil protests and political activism are commonplace at higher education institutions and can often be productive. However, given heightened tensions and the ease with which people external to the college or university community can walk onto campus and get involved, managing these activities can be a delicate balancing act.
  5. Parents can complicate campus emergency response. Even if they live miles away, many parents sign up for the same emergency alerts their students will receive, which means they will be aware of and monitoring the response to emergency events. As a situation unfolds, students often text their parents, and the parents may turn to law enforcement or fire department social media pages to get information or share complaints. Last year, for example, some parents were critical of Pepperdine University when it made the decision to have students shelter in place in two specified buildings as the Woolsey Fire approached the campus. Pepperdine officials pointed out the protocol was developed with the Los Angeles Fire Department and school officials were experienced in dealing with wildfire threats. That did not stop parents and some area elected officials from questioning the school’s handling of the manner, leading to national media coverage.

The unique characteristics of the campus environment make it crucial for local police, fire and emergency managers to meet and practice responses with college and university personnel before an incident takes place. One place to start is by connecting with campus police or other emergency services. Drill together for likely scenarios so you can build trust with those in charge at the institution.

Many parents sign up for the same emergency alerts their students will receive, which means they will be aware of and monitoring the response to emergency events.

Don’t stop there, however. Does the college or university in your area have an emergency response team? Do they understand the National Incident Management System and are they prepared to work within it? If they don’t, is there a way you can introduce the concept and help them? Perhaps you can work with other schools or colleges in the area that are more prepared. Can you arrange a meeting between representatives of the two schools?

Weather-related disasters and mass shootings are on the rise; there were 15 active shooter incidents on college campuses between 2000 and 2017 and many more gun incidents, according to the FBI. Higher ed leaders are acutely aware of the risks such events pose to their facilities and students. As a result, most are eager to work with local authorities to understand how they can improve campus emergency response and coordinate with off-campus resources.

It’s important to build respect and a working understanding between your public safety agency and the local college or university when the sun is shining and no crisis is occurring. That way you can overcome any culture clash and learn to work together for the safety of the students and the rest of the community.

For more on how your agency can plan, train and communicate for complex emergencies, visit Preparedness Global.

Connie McNamara

Connie McNamara is a founding partner of Preparedness Global and has more than 30 years of experience in strategic communication and crisis response. McNamara has served as a senior leader in a variety of organizations and has handled communications around complex situations involving natural disasters, finance and civil and criminal investigations. A former journalist, she has presented on communications at national and international conferences.

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