Public Safety & Homeland Security

Who Is Essential on Campus During a Disaster?

University plans should address various hazards to answer that question.

by Andy Altizer, Randy Crist, Jennifer Rhodes, Keith Sumas / November 21, 2016
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Essential personnel are needed to ensure critical functions continue after an emergency. The real question is: Who is considered essential and who decides who is essential on a college campus? Everyone has been through the drill where an executive committee, emergency preparedness working group or perhaps even the human resource office generates a long list of the people on campus who are considered essential, but a question remains: Do these people have the skills and abilities to make sure the campus continues to operate after an emergency? And once the campus is closed, will the people identified as essential actually remain or return to campus?

FEMA doesn’t regularly use the term “essential personnel,” but includes “human capital” as one of the elements of a viable continuity capability. Human capital is defined as emergency employees and other special categories of employees who are activated by an agency to perform assigned response duties during an event where continuity is at stake.

Columbia University defines essential personnel as the faculty and staff who are required to report to their designated work location and to ensure the operation of essential functions or departments during an emergency or when the university has suspended operations.

Rather than develop a generic list of essential employees, universities will have more success after an emergency of maintaining critical functions by basing their plan on the emergency itself. Simply, who must continue to work based on the campus closures? Again, even when discussing campus specific emergencies, the various departments must first identify their critical functions before the essential employees can be established. These three specific closures and subsequent essential employees are simply a starting point and an example of what must be modified based on each campus’ essential functions, organization, interdependent variables and geographic location.

Universities’ Continuity of Operations Plans should address each potential hazard and include the specific list of essential employees to manage the aftermath to keep the institution in business. Public health, power outage and winter weather are just three examples.

Public Health
Public health emergencies have the potential to impact every single department on a campus. Universities must decide what basic functions must continue to operate on the physical campus, such as law enforcement, housing functions and dining services, and what essential functions can be done remotely, like purchasing, information technology and teaching. During a public health emergency, isolation and separation are vital to the health of the community. Emergency planners should assist departments with determining how they can continue their functions from home and how to potentially operate at a reduced level. Continuity planning for public health scenarios should also take into consideration that the event may last for an extended period and that mutual aid resources are probably going to be overwhelmed. Deferrable functions may need to cease until the crisis is over, and there may also be a need to reallocate human capital resources to maintain only those critical one- and two-level functions on campus.

Likely essential personnel to deal with the lingering effects of a public health emergency, possible campus disruption and even perhaps closure, include:

•    Health services personnel (doctors, nurses, etc.)
•    Public safety (police, emergency management)
•    Environmental health and safety
•    Information technology, especially if distance learning options are available
•    Public/media relations
•    Housing
•    Dean of students

Campuswide Power Outage
Outages can be caused by human error, equipment failure, severe weather or even traffic accidents. If this happens, these two questions will almost immediately be asked by the faculty, staff and student body: How long will it be before it is restored, and can we go home? Although emergency management cannot initially answer these questions, they can certainly begin to coordinate the response and recovery efforts with other essential personnel and departments. The duties and functions are critical from these members of facilities, environmental health and safety, public safety, and information technology as this incident is unfolding.
Facilities staff must continuously monitor and confirm that all the generators are maintaining the building’s life safety systems and emergency lighting. Depending on the time of day, this may present a problem for the occupants in the building. The outage may cause elevator entrapments, fire alarms and other devices to activate, creating a panic for some as the unknown is magnifying.
Environmental health and safety staff should make contact with those labs that have been pre-identified as hazardous and get a current status from each principal investigator so as to perform a safety check of every researcher. In addition, an update should be noted if there has been any damage to sensitive equipment or experiments.
Public safety will be bombarded with phone calls into the dispatch center to report the outage and with other incidents. The center will quickly have to juggle many duties with a limited number of dispatchers. The previous-mentioned alarms, traffic light outages and accidents will surely keep them busy, especially assigning police officers to assist with these service calls and any building evacuations.

Information technology will administer business continuity plans that have been laid out for these types of situations. As the crux of any university operation, they have to ensure that all of the servers are working on the uninterrupted power supply systems and no data has been lost. An institution’s phone system and other network services could be impacted.
As with any other incident, there is usually an emergency within an emergency. Murphy’s Law will always rear its ugly head with generators and other backup systems failing at the wrong time, but the essential personnel members will have to respond with plans B and C. The impact in the end will be minimal because of their actions, training and experience.

Winter Weather
Regardless of where a campus is located, snow storms may dump unusually large amounts of snow. Ice or freezing rain may make roads too slick to navigate, and driving winds may create white-out conditions or exacerbate already dangerously low temperatures. To further complicate matters, local or state governments may impose travel restrictions or declare states of emergency that compel universities to suspend operations.

In most cases, activity on campus will significantly diminish, alleviating the need for many of the day-to-day operations. Functions that must continue are largely focused on ensuring the safety, security and comfort of the campus community and preparing to resume normal operations once the weather improves. Perhaps unique to this circumstance, the need for performing essential functions, and the people to support them, must be balanced with their safety in getting to campus.

Given the above considerations, examples of critical functions broadly include:

1. Provide utilities (power, water, heat): operate the on-campus power plant/distribution facility and monitor critical building systems.
•    Utilities department senior management
•    Power plant operations and maintenance staff
•    Building control technicians

2. Prepare and serve meals to students: provide sustenance to campus residents.
•    Dining hall manager
•    Production manager
•    Cook
•    Food preparation staff

3. Maintain a safe and secure campus: respond to calls for service; assure life and property safety; provide non-transport medical response, conduct patrols; direct emergency response resources; provide medical care to students.
•    Dispatch center personnel
•    Shift captain/fire fighters
•    Sworn and non-sworn officers
•    Health Center nurses

4. Remove snow from primary roadways: maintain campus accessibility, prepare for re-opening.
•    Director of landscape services
•    Landscape service personnel

5. Maintain data center operations: ensure uninterrupted network; data; and application services.
•    Director of IT services
•    Service technicians

6. Protect (research) animal life: maintain animal living environment, ensure adequate food and water.
•    Facility director/associate director
•    Facility manager
•    Animal technicians
•    Facility veterinarian (on-call)

Recovery efforts/continuity of operations is the most difficult phase of the emergency management process. It is a phase that often receives the least amount of planning and resources. An important part of the recovery process must be to identify essential employees, but should be done so based on the emergency and the essential functions that must be continue. It’s also worth noting that, regardless of the plan, it will likely need to be modified based on additional and unforeseen circumstances — including, essential employees. Finally, the geographical location and mission of a university also plays an important part in determining essential employees, and consequently an important reason why one university may have a different list of essential employees and cannot simply rely on another university’s list.


Andy Altizer is the Director of Emergency Management at Kennesaw State University.

Randy Crist is a safety specialist in the Risk Management and Safety Department at the University of Notre Dame.

Jennifer Rhodes began her career in Emergency Management in 2002 following September 11.

Keith Sumas has been a coordinator with the Georgia Emergency Management/Homeland Security Agency assisting agencies with approval of emergency operation plans.