Lessons on Preparedness Work at an Intermountain West University

This is a longer post but I hope reviewing the work of a real education institution’s emergency management and campus safety work is helpful. This is an overview of the emergency management and campus safety work that I did at Utah State University (USU).

Beginning in August 2010, when the Department of Housing and Residence Life at USU hired me in a dual role as a Residence Director and as the Division’s Emergency Management Coordinator, I began working on the our emergency preparedness.

In order to get a sense of what emergency management work had already been done, I began by reviewing the existing documents and history of the department.  While reviewing those documents, it became clear to me that there were major gaps in the fundamental trainings in the division, especially at the management and senior leadership level.

Following up on the document review, I realized that I needed to get a sense of what training and background the members of the department had.  I knew from private and informal conversations that many of the individuals had trainings or experience related, directly or indirectly, to emergency management. Because of my knowledge of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS Church), I suspected there would be a substantial amount of church-based emergency management experience, especially from the men who had been in positions of leadership in the LDS Church.

I proposed to my supervisor, the Director of Residence Life, and the Executive Director of Housing and Residence Life, a plan for the department’s emergency management efforts that had me starting by interviewing the managers in the department and to survey them.
Following the meeting with the directors, I interviewed the people that the leadership team had identified as key stakeholders. These individuals were at the supervisor level in the organization who, generally, were the people who sat on the Housing Coordination Committee which was the primary leadership team of the department.

I recognized that I missed valuable insight and experience by not interviewing all housing employees; however, for the sake of timeliness I decided to interview only the supervisors. Despite this, I made a point to note that emergency management and campus safety is a dynamic process and all employees were welcome to provide me with feedback, comments, questions, etc. regarding this work.

Starting in early November and ending in December, I interviewed seventeen supervisors and senior leaders in Housing and Residence Life as well as student affairs and campus safety.  From these interviews, I got a lot of valuable information, of which I will not get into here because there was no Institutional Review Board review for the survey as it was designed for the operations of a non-academic department at the University.  

In essence, my suspicions were confirmed regarding individual’s emergency management training and experience.  It was very spread out, often not intentional, and where it did exist, it mostly came from LDS Church activities. For future research, I think there is a significant opportunity in researching and writing about the LDS Church’s preparedness efforts and how that affects the preparedness of the community at-large and the organizations and institutions they work.

Based on the background that I collected, and based on what I had learned in my emergency management practice up to that point, specifically the Department of Education and the Department of Homeland Security guidance, which mandates minimum trainings in National Incident Management System/Incident Command System (NIMS/ICS) for key personnel in schools and higher education institutions (FEMA, n.d.) see my earlier blog posts, I decided that our first move would be to improve the training of the department, starting with the NIMS/ICS certifications.  I then organized, with the University’s Emergency Manager (who I meet with on a monthly basis to review emergency management issues of mutual interest) a series of NIMS/ICS trainings.

We started with teaching the ten Residence Life professional staff (dorm parents for our independant school colleagues), the live-in professional housing officials that supervise student conduct, wellness, student staff, etc.) the foundational Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) course for NIMS, IS-700 – NIMS An Introduction, which provides an overview of the National Incident Management System.  Following that, we taught that same group FEMA’s basic Incident Command course, IS-100 – Introduction to Incident Command System.  

This was generally well received by the group; however, they did provide feedback that the material was very technical and geared towards professional responders such as the fire department, police department, etc.  Now they have specific ones for higher education and high schools.

The following March, we organized a series of trainings throughout the week of spring break.  On the first two days of the week, we held three NIMS IS-700 courses and on the last two days of the week, we held three ICS IS-100 courses.  During these trainings, we made a point to connect the material FEMA requires with stories, examples, and anecdotes that relate to emergency management in the higher education context generally and the housing and residence life context in particular.  

These trainings certified over forty-five people in the basic courses of NIMS and ICS.  Following these trainings, there was feedback that it was still a little too technical and focused on professional responders but they did give positive feedback about us connecting the appropriate parts of the training to the University and Department.  Again, FEMA and others have developed specific course for institutions.

In August of 2011, the student level Residence Assistants (RAs) reported for their annual fall training.  Because of the department’s renewed work in emergency management, and my constant pestering about it, we dedicated a full eight hour day of the RA training to emergency management.  In the morning sessions, we presented both of the foundational courses that we taught the managers of the department.  The rest of the day included trainings about fire safety, first aid, and emergency procedures.  In the evaluations of this trainings, there were mixed feelings about the NIMS/ICS trainings.  A number of the staff deeply appreciated it and understood the value while others did note that they did not see why they were trained on it.  This, as with anything, could have been improved with better context building.

What I Learned and What I Would Do Differently

While planning and executing these trainings, I have learned a lot, especially in the context of the other work, trainings, and learning that I experienced during and after these trainings.  

One of the early things that I did right was get buy-in from the executives.  This has often been cited in the literature as a vital step to change initiatives generally (Chliwniak, 1997; Evans, 2000).  It was also been cited by various scholars in emergency management (Hartzog, 1981; Comfort. 1988; Waugh, 2000).  Without their buy-in, the access to the stakeholders would have been harder and getting people to the trainings that are not of obvious value and are time intensive would have been nearly impossible.

Communication and cooperation with other stakeholders, inside and outside of the organization would have been harder without the executive buy-in as well.  Their commitment to emergency management and there humbleness allowed me to have frank conversations with stakeholders.  Connecting and cooperating with the relevant stakeholders was also a good thing that I did in this process.  Stakeholder involvement is important to change initiatives in general (Schlechty, 2000; Kouzes & Posner, 1995; Herman & Herman, 1994) and in emergency management in particular (Pavlek, 1988; Rollo & Zdziarski, 2007).  

One of the largest mistakes I can identify is that we may not have adequately defined the reasoning for emergency management planning and the NIMS/ICS trainings in a way that made them relevant to all levels of the organization.  We should have treated even the lowest level employees more like stakeholders.

Mistakes happen and learning from them is a necessary part of emergency management work.  Emergency management scholars (Comfort, 1988; Waugh, 2000; Zdziarski, 2007; Rollo & Bunkel, 2007; & Rollo & Zdzairski, 2007) have made this point numerous times.  Zdziarski makes a powerful point in his dissertation, “that an organization can [should] continually learn and improve its crisis management process” (Zdziarski, 2001, p. 22).  Important organizational change scholars (Senge, 1990) have also argued about the need for the organizational learning.

When I started the emergency management process at USU, I had a results driven mindset.  I thought that our progress and success would come from, and be measured by, the number of people trained in one thing or another. 

I WAS WRONG.  It is not only the result of an institution’s emergency planning that is important, it is the bringing of people to the table; it is the process itself that is valuable.

If I were able to go back and do things in a different order, I would have taken a course like FEMA’s Multi-Hazard Emergency Planning for Higher Education training before our organization began working on emergency management.  There was a lot of valuable information in that training that would have been good to have early in the process.

As always, in higher education and schools, formal assessment and measurement of the efforts would have helped the process and allowed the organization to document our individual and institutional learning.  Many scholars have written about the value of and need for assessment (Herman & Herman, 1994; Farson, 1996; Sherwood & McKelfresh, 2007; & Eich, 2008). 

As I move forward in emergency management, I have, and will continue to do more robust and intentional assessment.  These measurements include learning outcomes, surveys, follow up interviews, and even informal conversations about emergency management efforts.  With improved assessments, there is a lot of additional and important work that I could do with the department’s and the University’s work in this area.

Higher education institutions and independent schools should plan on doing continued trainings in various campus safety and emergency management topics including the basic, intermediate, and advanced NIMS/ICS certifications as well as training in Community Emergency Response Teams.  Additionally, they should develop and hold regular tabletop exercises and an annual full-scale exercise with other university and area agencies.

This is a long post and I thank you for reading.  Hopefully,  reviewing the work of a real education institution is helpful.  Please contact me if I can be helpful, casually or formally, to you or your organization


Comfort, L. (Ed). (1988). Managing disaster: Strategies and policy perspectives. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Bunkel, N.W. & Stump, L. (2007). Working with emergency personnel and outside agencies .  In Zdziarski, E.L., Bunkel, N.W., Rollo, J.M. (eds.) (2007). Campus crisis management. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Eich, D. (2008). A grounded theory of high quality leadership programs: Perspectives from student leadership development programs in higher education. Journal of Leadership and Organizational Studies. 15(176). DOI 10.1177/1548051808324099

Evans, R. (2000). The authentic leader. In Fullan, Michael. (Ed.). (2000). The Jossey-Bass reader on educational leadership. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Farson, R. (1996). Management of the absurd: paradoxes in leadership. New York: Simon &   Schuster.

FEMA. (n.d.).  NIMS implementation activities for schools and higher education institutions.  Accessed at  http://training.fema.gov/EMIWeb/emischool/EL361Toolkit/assets/NIMSImplementationActivitiesforSchools.pdf. on Dec 20. 2-11.       

Hartzog, A.  (1981). A national descriptive study of emergency management at selected institutions of higher education.  (Doctoral dissertation). Florida State University, Tallahassee, FL.

Herman, J.J., Herman, J.L. (1994) Making change happen: practical planning for school leaders. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.

Kouzes, J., Posner, B. (1995).  The leadership challenge: how to keep getting extraordinary things done in organizations. (2nd Ed).  San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Rollo, J. & Bunkel, N. (2007). The crisis matrix.  In Zdziarski, E.L., Bunkel, N.W., Rollo, J.M. (eds.) (2007). Campus crisis management. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Rollo, J. & Zdziarski, E. (2007). Developing a crisis management plan.  In Zdziarski, E.L., Bunkel, N.W., Rollo, J.M. (eds.) (2007). Campus crisis management. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Schlechty, P. (2000). Leading a school system through change: Key steps for moving reform forward.  In Fullan, Michael. (Ed.). (2000). The Jossey-Bass Reader on Educational Leadership.  San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.  

Sherwood, G.P. & McKelfresh, D. (2007).  Crisis management teams.  In Zdziarski, E.L., Bunkel, N.W., Rollo, J.M. (eds.) (2007). Campus crisis management. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Waugh, W. (2000). Living with hazards dealing with disasters: An introduction to emergency management. Amonk, New York: M.E. Sharpe.

Zdziarski, E. (2001). Institutional preparedness to respond to a campus crises as perceived by student affairs administrators in selected NASPA member institutions. (Doctoral dissertation). Texas A&M University, College Station, TX. UMI No. 3033906

Zdziarski, E.L., Bunkel, N.W., Rollo, J.M. (eds.) (2007). Campus crisis management. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.


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