Higher Education

Ahead of the Curve: University Incident Response Plans and Communications

University incident response plans should focus on before, during, and after. Hurricanes, power-outages, man-made disasters—every organization has to prepare for these but when it comes to emergencies, universities face unique challenges because of the very nature of their structure and communities. Unlike the average office, universities are not enclosed spaces, and many different people—from students, to faculty, to staff, to visitors—are moving in and out of campus on any given day or time. This can make securing the campus and creating a comprehensive university incident response plan difficult. Compound this with the fact that university governance is often decentralized with different departments in charge of different decisions and creating a strong response plan can seem even more daunting.


So what’s a university to do? While plans should be personalised to each university’s need, we outline a few areas to focus on.

University Incident Response Plans: Prepare for Before, During, and After

In their guide to emergency operations plans for institutes of higher education, FEMA highlights five areas of preparedness: Prevention, Protection, Mitigation, Response, and Recovery. This provides a framework for university incident response plans that ensures the university is prepared before, during, and after any incident. Here’s the top 6 things you should know as you build your university incident response plan around these areas.

  1. Make sure everyone is on board.

As I mentioned, universities often have decentralized governance with many different departments. This means taking extra-care to make sure everyone is in the loop. First and foremost, the university incident response team must be supported by the university’s senior leadership—but making sure that the various departments—from academic affairs to public safety operations to the business office—are part of the process is key to success. This means establishing a core planning team that represents all the stakeholders across the university.

  1. Be transparent with the core planning team.

Working with many different stakeholders means making sure people understand each other. Make sure you have a common framework for vocabulary and command structure. Be transparent and clear about everyone’s roles and responsibility in the plan and make sure there are regularly scheduled meetings that everyone is aware of so nobody gets left out of the loop and everyone feels prepared. Communication is key.

  1. Know what you’re up against.

You need to identify the threats that the university faces. For example, a university in a hurricane-prone zone will want to be well prepared for that risk while a university located where there’s a lot of snow will need to be prepared for blizzards. Identify the threats and hazards that exist, their likelihood, impact, time you have to respond, and duration. Also plan for the less likely event – such as an active shooter. It is paramount that team members also know what to do in these events as well.

  1. Create plans that focus on prevention, mitigation, and recovery.

Think about what you want to achieve. For example, in the case of fires you will want to think about how to prevent this—for example by providing fire prevention training to staff. You will also want to think about how to mitigate damage should a fire occur–by setting up evacuation points for example. You will also need to account for recovery—in the aftermath of the fire, for example, you will want to account for everyone and ensure their safety. 

  1. Be detail oriented.

When developing these plans think “details”. You’ll want to figure out how much time you have to respond, who is responsible for responding, and who will make decisions and when. Make sure your plans are inclusive for populations such as individuals who need assistance, visitors etc.

  1. Prioritise communication.

As I said above, communication is key. One of the most important aspects of a university incident response plan is the ability to communicate quickly and effectively with staff and students. This means being able to send out notifications or messages that will reach the largest number of people during an emergency and during recovery. With people constantly on the move on campus this can be difficult. Fortunately, campuses are well-equipped with internet connectivity and everyone today has a smartphone in hand.  This enables Universities to opt for a communications platform that functions over cellular data and Wifi for incident notification and response. Secure communication platforms, such as Vaporstream —can be key to keeping everyone informed in real-time and safe.

Secure Communications for University Incident Response

At Vaporstream, we provide a secure communication platform that allows universities to handle communications based on their sensitivity as well as the nature of the incident.  Vaporstream can broadcast secure, encrypted messages to key stakeholders and can automate SMS and or email to the community to ensure the appropriate information is disseminated. To learn how we can help your university with incident response download a data sheet here

Contributor: Kristi Perdue Hinkle