What if it happens here? Cornell upgrades its emergency plans to meet challenges of health and safety

Students arriving on campus this semester are getting a new task added to their to-do lists: Log onto "Who I Am" and provide emergency contact information.

The new service is the latest upgrade to Cornell's ongoing emergency planning effort. Since the late 1990s, well before 9/11 and recent U.S. campus shootings, Cornell has had a team of officials and responders dedicated to planning for events most people don't want to think about.

While these include horrific crimes like shootings, the team also looks at catastrophic weather occurrences like severe snowstorms and even tornadoes; this past summer a swiftly moving tornado roared across Tompkins County just north of campus. There are health emergencies to prepare for, as well: Most health experts believe it is only a matter of time before a flu pandemic sweeps around the globe.

Best practices for handling emergencies are evolving rapidly, and recent events in the world have presented themselves as learning opportunities, said Joseph Lalley, director of operations support for Facilities Services and acting director of information technology for the Division of Risk Management and Public Safety. As Cornell officials adjust campus emergency plans to respond to new challenges, they feel it is crucial to keep the campus community informed and to remind people that everyone has a responsibility to be involved in emergency planning.

"The right things are happening," said Richard McDaniel, Cornell's vice president for business services and environmental safety. "Good people are thinking carefully about the health and safety of this institution, and there's a proactive process in play that coordinates the various parts of the university."

1,500 emergencies a year

A large research university like Cornell has particular challenges that make comprehensive emergency planning far more intricate and multilayered than even that of a good-sized city, because of Cornell's plethora of labs with chemicals and laboratory animals and ongoing research experiments that cannot be interrupted and are crucial to the mission of the university. In addition, there are students who may not be able to get home easily. Cornell must coordinate its efforts with city, county, state and federal governments and law enforcement agencies and must be responsive to students, staff and faculty -- as well as parents who want to know that the campus is safe and secure.

"Cornell is a very safe campus, but like any university or small city, we do have emergencies here," said Curtis Ostrander, associate vice president of risk management and public safety and the chief of Cornell Police. "We probably respond to 1,500 emergencies a year, with fire alarms, et cetera. Because we don't know what the emergency is going to be next week, we must pool our response resources for maximum effectiveness."

The whole nation reeled when, on April 16, a lone shooter killed 32 people and wounded 25 at Virginia Tech. This deadliest shooting in recent U.S. history is the kind of situation those in charge of campus security fear most.

While Cornell Police have conducted regular training around what they call an "active shooter situation" for about seven years, Ostrander said, the newest focus has been on communication to better inform the entire campus community about emergencies via mass text messaging, cell phones and several alert sirens that will double as public-address systems and will be installed at four points on campus later this year.

Alert sirens are "a very quick and easy low-tech way to get the word out to a lot of people," Lalley said.

One answer: restructuring

Planners and responders at universities, including Cornell, have taken National Incident Management System (NIMS) courses, which give responders a similar language, terminology and role responsibilities. In addition, Cornell has been involved in a voluntary consultation/assessment process with Homeland Security experts.

Research universities also have been guided by the federal Environmental Protection Agency's Resource Conservation Recovery Act, which recently extended the regulation of large quantities of hazardous materials into laboratories, covering even small quantities of materials.

The maturing structure of university emergency management teams has challenged planners to integrate all the various health and safety activities on campus. "How can we agree upon a common set of priorities, reduce the impact of 'institutional smokestacks' and achieve more seamless relationships?" McDaniel asked.

One answer is restructuring, and along those lines, the Division of Risk Management and Public Safety, directed by McDaniel, was created earlier this year under Stephen Golding, Cornell's Samuel W. Bodman Executive Vice President for Finance and Administration.

Restructuring has been extended to campus governance, as well, and an emergency management committee, which includes McDaniel, Lalley and Ostrander, now oversees planning and control of emergencies. Another committee, the Safety, Health and Environmental Risk Management Board (SHERM), is an administrative arm that carries mission responsibility with a cross-section of campus representatives, including Campus Life, Purchasing, Cornell Police, Gannett Health Services, Human Resources, academic and research units.

All emergencies offer prescient lessons for emergency management. During the Valentine's Day snowstorm this past February, Cornell cancelled classes halfway through the day, garnering criticism for not closing early that morning and sparing students, faculty and staff the decision whether to trek to and across campus in the dangerous conditions. In April, when the next storm came, the university's response included more proactive communication than ever before, with regular updates even before the storm hit.

Planning for a pandemic

A major planning effort is under way for health emergencies. Last year, a Pandemic Flu Working Group was organized to make plans for possible influenza scenarios; officials project that at the peak of a flu epidemic, up to 40 percent of the university's workforce could be unavailable for at least three weeks (with 20 percent unavailable for an even longer period of time).

"We believe that by doing pandemic flu planning well, we can mitigate the severity of the pandemic's impact on Cornell," said Janet Corson-Rikert, M.D., executive director of Gannett Health Services.

This fall the working group expects to issue a draft plan, which will be used to assist the development of detailed plans in colleges and units throughout Cornell.

Another area of intense focus is what's known as business continuity and emergency management. Hurricane Katrina's devastation of New Orleans and the campus of Tulane University shocked everyone in its long-term effects.

Katrina inflicted an estimated $500 million in damage to Tulane; biological samples, research animals and cell cultures were destroyed, scientific studies were interrupted and ruined, and hundreds of thousands of dollars of research were lost.

"They were essentially wiped out," said Peggy Matta, Cornell's new director of emergency planning and recovery. "Every research university snapped to attention after that and realized again the need to incorporate business continuity. How do you continue business, or at least the essential services and research, during an emergency?" And if the emergency is, for example, an influenza pandemic, the plan has to cover more than just a few days -- it has to plan for what could be several months where nearly half the university's workforce could be out of commission.

"This anticipatory planning, planning for a crisis of absenteeism, involves the entire university," Corson-Rikert said, pointing out that a coordinated response has to go far enough to maintain the mission of the university through the crisis and recovery periods.

The members of the Cornell Emergency Management Committee are calling for all members of the Cornell community to get involved -- whether by updating and filling out personal and emergency contact information online or participating in emergency and/or pandemic flu planning in units or departments. All members of the Cornell community -- faculty, staff and students -- share responsibility for emergency planning.

Unit emergency plans within all colleges and major administrative units need to be developed or updated, Matta said -- a process that will continue through this calendar year and beyond.

The major lesson to be learned, Cornell officials agree, is that emergency planning is an ever-evolving process that involves everyone.

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