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Updated 11:00 AM June 30, 2008
 

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Leaders practice for potential emergencies

By its very definition an emergency is a sudden and often unexpected occurrence requiring quick thinking and immediate action. And while planning for the unexpected can be difficult, those involved in responding to campus emergencies believe practicing for the "what if" is important.

To that end more than 100 University administrators and staff from all three campuses were scattered in groups throughout Ann Arbor May 20 participating in a tabletop exercise of a sudden, serious emergency. This represented the University's second such exercise organized by the All Hazards Planning Group. It was designed to be similar to events at Virginia Tech and Northern Illinois University: an active shooter was loose on campus and resources were mobilized to respond to the would-be emergency.

Public safety and UMHS health care personnel, executive officers, deans, student affairs leaders, communicators and operational staff who would be called upon in an emergency spent a morning examining current operational plans and identifying and solving potential problems with existing procedures, as they applied to the scenario.

The active shooter tabletop exercise was the second to be held under the AHPG, established two years ago largely in response to the threat of Avian Influenza. The first exercise involved a simulated pandemic influenza outbreak and a future session will address a weather threat, says Terrance Alexander, executive director of Occupational Safety & Environmental Health (OSEH).

"Threats like 9/11, flu and campus shootings have prompted all universities to review their emergency planning procedures," Alexander says. "As one piece of a multi-faceted campus emergency plan, the All Hazards Planning Group has been tasked to address policies and various actions that might be necessary to respond to emergency situations in order to safeguard the health and safety of students, staff, faculty and visitors, and to secure the academic and business operations of the University."

Alexander and Chief Health Officer Dr. Robert Winfield are co-chairs of the AHPG. Winfield says the University uses the all-hazards strategy for all natural and man-made emergencies because it anticipates critical resources and operations necessary in an emergency.

"While it is impossible to anticipate and plan for every conceivable scenario, we can put into place a system that is flexible and can be adjusted to the changing dynamic," Winfield says. "For example, despite differences in how a pandemic flu and a tornado manifest themselves, there would be significant overlap in the response to each emergency."

Loren Rullman, associate vice president for student affairs, says his division's plan for responding to a pandemic of influenza held up well as a model for the active shooter scenario.

"Our experience was fantastic. We realized from the bird flu plan that there are things in place that could transfer (to this scenario), like our plans for establishing command posts, for providing food and shelter, and for offering physical health and mental health services," Rullman says. "We were able to take the plan from that exercise and identify gaps — none terribly concerning, but small things — that we needed to fill."

Rullman says what was learned from the second exercise will enable the 22 participants from the Division of Student Affairs to tighten communication and further define roles of those who would be involved in an emergency.

"It was really an excellent exercise and we learned a lot long before we might need it," he adds.

Robert Johnston, director of facilities and operations in LSA and a member of the AHPG, participated in the campus deans group during the exercise. He says the earlier influenza tabletop discussion "got people thinking about their processes."

"It was good to get people thinking: How would we do this and how would we do that? It helped crystallize their thoughts."

But, he says, handling an influenza pandemic would be something that people likely would see coming; it would develop over time and wouldn't have the same urgency as other scenarios.

"As we went through it we decided we needed to think of other incidents that are more likely than a pandemic," Johnston says, adding that the urgency of a shooting brings up a whole new range of issues for deans about how they communicate with their constituencies of students, faculty, staff and parents in messages that are consistent with those being disseminated from designated chief spokespersons in such incidents.

The U-M Health System took the shooter exercise a step beyond discussion, actually triaging and treating mock victims in the Emergency Room.

Such exercises are not new to health care personnel who must do at least two a year, says Bruce Cadwallender, director of safety and emergency management for the U-M Hospitals and Health Centers. But the chance to participate across the community was helpful, he says.

"It was beneficial to learn how to work through these kinds of things across lines," he says. "We found a lot of value in it and found some opportunities to do things better."

In particular, he says, this exercise provided them with a chance to consider a scenario that likely would involve victims at multiple locations, allowing the UMHHC to coordinate with St. Joseph Mercy Health System. Cadwallender also says it gave them a chance to see the resources that would be strained the most, and the unusual circumstances that an active shooter event would create.

"The concept of a tremendous rush on medical campus by concerned students, parents and media is not terribly new but we haven't seen it in quite a while."

The tabletop exercise is just one means the University uses to practice its response to emergencies and to address campus safety. In 2008 the University also introduced the U-M Emergency Alert system to add to the communication methods emergency responders can use to reach members of the campus community during an emergency. Faculty, staff and students are strongly urged to go into their Wolverine Access accounts to register telephone numbers to receive text and voice messages in a major campus emergency. ITCS staff members have reviewed their protocols as well to enable faster delivery of emergency e-mail messages.

Shortly after the blackout of 2003, the University also encouraged units to develop or update plans to respond in an emergency. Additionally, OSEH recently updated a campuswide Emergency Management Web site that includes a revised Emergency Procedures Flip Chart. Also posted throughout campus, it covers topics ranging from emergency preparedness to IT security to crime prevention. It gives specific instructions for physical threats including power outages, floods, severe weather, bomb threats, civil disturbances and more. It describes what to do in a medical emergency or in the event of a hazardous materials incident. To view the chart, or for more on AHPG and the University's emergency planning go to www.umemergencymanagement.umich.edu/.

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