Graham School News

On Campus: Emergency Management in Higher Education

UChicago Emergency Management students discuss higher ed campus safety

Despite having the same job title–Director of Emergency Management–Master of Science in Threat and Response Management Alumni Tamara Mahal and Bill Curtis' day-to-day work on campus looks pretty different. Until she moved on earlier this year, Tamara faced the challenge of being the first dedicated emergency manager at Amherst College. She was responsible for building an emergency management program, and writing an emergency operations plan, from the ground up. Bill, by contrast, runs the well-established Emergency Management Unit at the University of Wisconsin, overseeing Wisconsin System's 13 four-year universities and 13 two-year colleges.

Despite these differences in scale, both Tamara and Bill's goals are the same. To ensure that college campuses have robust emergency management procedures, and that everyone studying, working and living on campus is prepared and safe. A huge part of this goal is training and education. Bill's team spends time training people in everything from CPR to active shooter procedures, as well as running tabletop and full-scale exercises. In establishing an emergency management program on campus, Tamara spent considerable time training employees on concepts like the National Incident Management System or the Incident Command System. 

As fears of active shooters and terrorism incidents on campus grow, these goals of a safe and prepared campus gain increased prominence. However, this increased focus doesn't come without its challenges. And some of these challenges are intrinsically tied to the nature of higher education. For example, according to Bill one of the great challenges faced in higher education is the constant change in population. "Every four years, a majority of the student population is new. This presents a variety of problems, new individuals to train in response protocols (thousands of people), updating information in the emergency alerting systems, and new expectations from the students (including new social media channels and other technology)," he says. 

For Tamara, one of these challenges was getting faculty, who value class time and research above all else, to invest time in emergency preparedness."Staff at higher education institutions generally feel a responsibility to be prepared," she says. "But attempting to inject emergency preparedness messaging and activities requires coordinating around the academic schedule and fighting an uphill battle against a faculty culture that believes their role at the College was to teach, as opposed to emergency preparedness being everyone's responsibility."

As evident in the news and current events, major research universities are also frequent targets activists and hackers. 

"There is a wealth of knowledge to steal, along with a variety of issues and projects to protest. This creates a dynamic situation that requires a watchful eye in identifying the threat, and creativity in how to respond," says Bill. 

Despite these challenges, there are also plenty of opportunities for creativity and collaboration in emergency management on college campuses. This collaboration manifests in multiple ways. 

"Many researchers are excited to partner with emergency management in understanding and exploring risk reduction activities, how students respond to emergencies, and other areas of research," says Bill. "This also applies to internships. I am excited to have an intern work with my team. They bring a different view point to the table with refreshing ideas and an innovative way of thinking."

Tamara was also able to leverage college culture to improve the visibility of emergency preparedness on campus, as well as learn from fellow emergency management professionals. "There are many opportunities for engagement with students, staff, and faculty because of the club culture of colleges," she says. "And, I found the greatest networking and coordination among emergency managers in the higher education system. Emergency managers at colleges and universities regularly talk to each other and share lessons learned, improving all programs as a whole."

For Bill, collaboration is also an asset for the logistical operations of the institutions. "Many institutions are facing budget cuts that require creativity in finding efficiencies. Large campuses are essentially small cities, often times with power plants, streets departments, and other common municipal functions," he says."Campuses need to be smart about sharing resources and developing partnerships to develop a common operating picture between these departments."

Despite recently leaving her position at Amherst College, Tamara encourages anyone interested in working on a college campus to do so. "There's always something going on at a college, whether it's a sporting event or a well-known speaker coming to campus," she says. "And, it's a challenge. The set of threats you face differs from other places you may work because you have a responsibility for student residents that you don't find elsewhere."

Both Tamara and Bill have the same advice for anyone looking to work in higher education–build relationships. "Success in emergency management is found in relationships. Knowing who your partners are and ensuring a good working relationships helps in the planning process and is critical in the response phase," Bill says. "The same goes for students in emergency management. If you are interested in higher education emergency management, reach out to individuals in the field and introduce yourself. Express your interest and seek internship opportunities. Start to build your portfolio of contacts now so when you are ready to apply for jobs you have a list of contacts to reach out to for support and guidance."