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Guidance for a Higher Education Emergency Operations Plan

Every campus is diverse and has varied emergency preparedness needs. Is your campus’s plan updated and ready to address any potential risks?

All communities, colleges and universities should be prepared for all types of potential emergencies before they occur, know what to do during an emergency and be prepared to recover from emergencies after they occur. –National Higher Education Emergency Management Program Needs Assessment

The safety and well-being of students, faculty, staff and community members should be the priority of any higher education institution. There are a number of considerations when building an emergency operations plan (EOP) that will address potential risks, though.

We’ve detailed out the guidance you need to plan, develop and train on your EOP to help ensure a successful response should an emergency situation arise.

Organizing your planning team

Organizing Your Planning Team

While many stakeholders need to be involved when developing the plan, the senior leadership on campus should start the process. The president, chancellor or provost of the higher education institution should begin engagement with all stakeholders to start the conversation. This individual will have the decision-making power needed to allocate resources and budget to the EOP, making him or her critical for the planning process.

Once the process has been initiated, ensure that your planning team involves all relevant stakeholders, including:

  • Law enforcement
  • Fire officials
  • EMS personnel
  • Emergency managers
  • Public health officials
  • Mental health officials
  • Other local government officials
  • Community organizations

You additionally should include individuals that can advise on the needs of students, staff and families with disabilities, as well as focus on racial, ethnic, linguistic and religious diversity within your planning team.

Ensure, too, that your higher education institution’s emergency action plan is fully integrated with existing community, regional and state plans to support a more cohesive response.

Assessing Potential Campus Threats

Assessing Potential Campus Threats

Every higher education institution will face distinct planning needs, and one plan cannot meet the needs of every campus. Therefore, it’s important that your institution understand its specific threats and risks, then develops a plan to align with each—from power outages to severe weather to acts of violence.

Threats for a higher education institution can vary in cause and severity. The Disaster Resilient Universities (DRU) Network identifies seven types of potential threats:

  • Geologic hazards: earthquakes, tsunamis, landslides, volcanic eruptions
  • Meteorological hazards: flooding, hurricanes, lightning strikes, drought, snow, ice
  • Biological hazards: food-borne illness, pandemic diseases, infections, communicable diseases
  • Accidental human-caused events: chemical spills, explosions, fire, nuclear spills
  • Intentional human-caused events: harassment, active shooter, bomb threats, terrorism, arson
  • Technology-caused incidents: computer hacking, identity theft, malicious social media posts
  • Other hazards: hazards like supply-chain interruptions

To prepare for those potential threats, complete a risk assessment specific to your campus. Be sure to include any satellite locations in addition to the main campus so that all of your facilities are prepared for an emergency situation.

91% of respondents agreed that their institution would benefit from connecting with another campus that has experienced a similar incident or event when planning for an emergency situation. –National Higher Education Emergency Management Program Needs Assessment

To complete a comprehensive risk assessment, campuses should focus on four primary evaluations:

  • Site assessment: Reviews specific features of the campus, including building access control measures, visibility around building exteriors, compliance with architectural standards for individuals with functional or access needs, emergency vehicle access and the structural integrity of the buildings
  • Culture and climate assessment: Assesses student and staff perceptions of their safety while working to address problem behaviors
  • Behavioral threat assessment: Analyzes the communications and behaviors of members of the campus to determine if they are a potential threat
  • Capacity assessment: Evaluates the capabilities of students, faculty and staff as it relates to skills like first aid certification, mental health expertise and the ability to assist those with disabilities

By evaluating all of the above, you’ll be able to tailor your EOP accordingly to the distinct needs of your campus, students and staff.

Higher education institutions should also take time to assess their equipment and supplies, including medical equipment, to ensure that the necessary supplies are readily available should an emergency occur.

Remember: The key is to plan for risks before they happen. Completing the applicable assessments upfront will help your campus more productively respond to an emergency situation.

Developing the Emergency Operations Plan

Developing the Emergency Operations Plan

Once you’ve identified your potential risks, your planning team can begin work on developing the EOP, starting by identifying the course of action needed for each potential threat.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) acknowledges that while building your EOP, you should develop the course of action by addressing questions like:

  • What is the action?
  • Who is responsible for the action?
  • When does the action take place?
  • How long does the action take?
  • How much time is available for taking the action?
  • What has to happen before?
  • What happens after?
  • What resources are needed to perform the action?
  • How will this affect specific populations, including individuals with disabilities, who may require medication, wayfinding, evacuation assistance or personal assistance services?
  • How will this affect those who may experience severe anxiety during traumatic events?

Remember: All plans must comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act, among other prohibitions on disability discrimination, across the spectrum of emergency management services. –FEMA

Once you have determined your course(s) of action to address potential risks, you’ll need to evaluate the resources needed to successfully complete the action. Go through each potential response outcome and evaluate available resources, ensuring that anything required will be readily accessible when needed.

You can then utilize the above information to formally document your plan. When documenting the plan, make sure to include relevant supporting graphics to ensure it’s easy to digest. You should also consider:

  • Summarizing important information with checklists and visual aids, such as maps and flowcharts
  • Using clear, plain language
  • Using an active voice
  • Utilizing a logical, consistent structure for ease of readability
  • Providing enough detail make the plan understandable and actionable
  • Developing accessible versions of any documents

After the plan is solidified, all relevant stakeholders should have the opportunity to review and approve the plan. FEMA considers a plan to be complete when it:

  • Incorporates all courses of action to be accomplished for all selected threats and hazards, as well as identified functions
  • Integrates the needs of the whole school community
  • Provides a complete picture of what should happen, when and at whose direction
  • Estimates times for achieving objectives, with safety remaining a top priority
  • Identifies success criteria
  • Identifies a desired end state

Once the plan is complete and formally approved, your work is not done. Ensure that training is prioritized to get all stakeholders aligned with the plan and ready to address potential threats.

Training Key Stakeholders

Training Key Stakeholders

Training is imperative for both natural and man-made disasters and should be a priority for your campus. Even the most comprehensive and detailed EOP will fail if not properly trained on.

Over 50% of survey respondents identified a need for training to improve emergency response plans, business continuity plans, continuity of operations plans, training plans and crisis communication plans. –National Higher Education Emergency Management Program Needs Assessment

Training can be broken down into four exercises:

  • Drill: During a drill, one community partner—like EMS—is invited onto campus to practice responding to a threat scenario.
  • Tabletop exercise: These small group discussions lead to conversation around potential threat scenarios and the actions taken to address the threats; this helps institutions assess the plan and ensures there is a complete understanding of expectations from stakeholders during plan execution.
  • Functional exercise: A functional exercise involves inviting multiple community partners to campus so that these groups can work in tandem to react to a simulated event.
  • Full-scale exercise: As the most time-consuming exercise, a full-scale exercise involves a multi-agency effort where all potential response resources are activated; this exercise type ultimately tests the collaboration and communication among all response personnel.

All of the above play an integral role in the training process and should be integrated at differing touchpoints during your campus’s training exercises.

To create a more cohesive training process, you could also consider integrating a learning management system (LMS) into training. By integrating an LMS into your protocols, you can identify weaknesses or shortcomings within your campus’s plan and immediately adjust your planning and training protocols accordingly.

You’ll also want to include an accountability aspect into all training. While you don’t necessarily need to focus on pass or fail, you do want to ensure that all relevant stakeholders are accessing the plan and reviewing it. This could be set up through something simple like online quizzes or through an email survey that people must be complete.

Throughout all of your exercises, evaluate the group’s ability to cooperate and work together, as well as test its readiness to respond.


Evolving Your Plan

Evolving Your Emergency Preparedness Planning

Your campus’s needs will be continually adapting, so it’s crucial to prioritize ongoing review and updates. By investing in a collaborative, easy-to-update preparedness tool, you can continually adjust your campus’s EOP to meet any changes or new needs.

StrataSite™ is the only secure, cloud-based emergency preparedness planning tool that enables you to collaboratively create, deploy and train on emergency response plans. This preparedness tool provides templates that help you plan for emergencies at a fraction of the time of traditional planning. These plans can also be updated with little time investment—providing flexibility to keep procedures updated and aligned with what your campus’s needs.

Additionally, the StrataSite learning management system (LMS) is included with all StrataSite subscriptions and is a valuable tool to onboard and train stakeholders. Through the LMS, higher education institutions can:

  • Create plan quizzes and upload review materials including PDFs, slideshows and videos
  • Utilize dashboard metrics reporting to ensure all credentialed users are actively using the platform
  • Access plan training easily through a simple, mobile-friendly design

Sign up for your free, no-obligation trial of StrataSite today.

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“StrataSite gives my team the online tools to build comprehensive active threat plans with the speed and accuracy that we've never had before. It's a game changer.”

- Sheriff Michael E. Heldman | Hancock County, Ohio


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