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Waubonsee Voices: College emergency staff learned from April false alarm

John Wu
John Wu

There seem to be news stories about terrorist attacks, extreme weather, shootings, wildfires and other calamities throughout our world at least weekly. At times there’s so much information about the impact of these events that it can become overwhelming. People can become confused, overwhelmed and disheartened about what may be coming around the corner next. Past research has shown that very few of us have done very much about our own family’s preparedness, let alone learn about what the community around us is able to do to prepare, respond and recover from large-scale emergencies. Even with ample evidence that emergency response systems are overwhelmed due to the complexity and volume of needs, we continue to hope that the “authorities” will provide accurate information and unlimited resources. The truth is that even if help is on the way, we really should not expect a quick and painless resolution, especially if the emergency is widespread.

Others react as if these extreme events are now the next thing that can happen to them personally. There’s evidence that gun sales increase after a shooting incident, and people avoid public places if a terrorist attack is reported. Those two extreme responses, either doing nothing or preparing for only one type of emergency, however remote, are really not well advised nor a good way to manage our limited resources. It certainly should not be, and isn’t, Waubonsee Community College’s strategy in evaluating and preparing for risks to our students, faculty and staff and our four campuses.

Instead, the college uses a structured way to think beyond the “disaster of the moment,” and prepare ourselves for the most likely emergencies and the ways to prevent, mitigate, respond and recover from these risks. The first step in our planning process is to conduct a risk assessment, which considers the frequency of an emergency from historical data and local expertise. Then we combine that with the likely consequences of the most likely events, such as impact to the college’s population, structures, or reputation, to arrive at relative priority for our preparedness planning. Taking these steps has demonstrated that, perhaps not surprisingly, severe weather events are the highest risk for the college. This is not to suggest that we neglect the feedback from drills and training we conduct routinely.

When the false report of a shooter on campus occurred in April, we learned that expectations from our stakeholders was for a more robust early warning system, a more comprehensive staff training program and a structured post-incident management strategy. The college has since that time improved the public information and alerting program, piloted more customized staff training and devoted additional resources to incident management. These improvements make the college’s response to all emergencies better and will ultimately lead to greater awareness and resilience for all of our stakeholders.

While no one at the college could have anticipated this false call, we learned from it and are safer because of the renewed emphasis on alerting, communications and oversight.

For our community, our advice is to heed the recommendation from experts to have enough supplies and resources on hand to last for at least 72 hours.

However, instead of just buying a standard preparedness kit online, I invite you to conduct a risk assessment of your own. Because each family is different, your location, transportation options, family needs and other factors should also drive how you prepare and what to prioritize. Take the time to conduct a family risk assessment based not just on the likelihood of any emergency in your local area, but where your family is most vulnerable. If you have young children or seniors living in your household for example, then a family reunification strategy and quick access to medical care might be a priority in your specific emergency plan. Resources for preparedness planning are also available through the American Red Cross or from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) on the ready.gov website.

• John Wu is the Waubonsee Community College director of emergency management and safety.

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