University to revise emergency procedures

Jessica Rothschuh

The Sept. 11 terrorist attacks spurred the university to improve its emergency communication system, said John Peach, the university’s emergency management coordinator and chief of police.

To minimize fear and chaos during emergencies, the first step is to inform faculty, students and staff of the situation and proper protocol. To speed communication, the university police installed radio receivers in each building on campus. The receivers create a 20-second tone followed by an emergency message and can be removed from the wall and taken to a shelter.

But students are not officially taught about the receivers or other preparedness measures such as procedure during tornadoes or terrorist attacks, Peach said. Students do not receive emergency plan instruction during orientation classes because they are already bombarded with information.

Instead, the university uses several lines of communication to direct and inform students when an event actually occurs. Sirens, receivers, e-mail and voicemail alerts, television bulletins, Web site posts and directions through residence hall directors and university administration are used to convey information and instructions when emergencies occur.

“I think the university is taking the responsibility that students will get the information in a timely manner,” Peach said. “We want students to know that information is going to get out as soon as possible.”

Even with the university’s well-trained staff, maintaining a high level of preparedness on campus is difficult because of the constant need to educate students, said Tom Schmidlin, geography professor and author of “Thunder in the Heartland: A Chronicle of Outstanding Weather Events in Ohio.” A new group of students comes in each year, and some students simply do not know or do not care about proper emergency procedure.

Schmidlin recalled a fire alarm going off during a meeting in the Student Center. Only one other person rose with him to leave. “Everyone else just continued the meeting,” he said.

Faculty, staff and students may not be aware of what the fire alarms mean or could mistake them for drills and not leave the building.

Though students who live in the residence halls do participate in required fire drills, they are not required to complete tornado training, Peach said. Tornado warning drills are held each spring for Ohio Severe Weather Awareness Week, but they usually occur during spring break when students are not on campus.

Similarly, Kent still has work to do to inform residents of emergency plans, Public Safety Director Bill Lillich said.

“We have done some minimal informing of the residents in the city bulletin,” he said. “That’s one of the challenges we simply haven’t gotten to.”

The city will likely create preparedness pamphlets and sophisticated online brochures in the future.

“What we have done is a work in progress,” Lillich said.

It is easy to blame the government when disaster assistance is less than what is desired, Schmidlin said, but citizens should be held partly responsible for helping themselves and their neighbors.

“A lot of that is not necessarily the government’s duty – it’s our duty,” he said. “The government isn’t there to save us.”

Lillich is currently reviewing the city’s emergency plans and realigning them with the new national guidelines set forth in the National Incident Management System, the nation’s first standardized emergency plan that aligns local, state and federal governments. The plan was established March 1, 2004, at the request of President George W. Bush and developed by the Department of Homeland Security.

Similarly, Kent State also is revising its emergency response plan to reflect the national guidelines, Peach said. The university’s old plan was drafted 15 years ago, when the world was a different place. Now both natural disasters and man-made emergencies such as terrorist attacks will be included in the plans because they require the same resources.

But there is also another persuasive reason to align the city’s and university’s plans with national guidelines.

“There are federal monies attached to it,” Peach said.

If a community fails to follow guidelines, it is not eligible for federal money to rebuild the community in the event an emergency does occur. The reasoning behind the federal government’s push for standardization is to improve communication and use resources more effectively.

“No community has all the resources necessary to handle really big emergencies,” Peach said.

Because this requires multiple entities to work together, National Incident Management Systems focuses heavily on communication and understanding, as communication is the “greatest obstruction” to effective emergency response, Peach said. The plan standardizes response procedures to reduce miscommunication and creates various tiers of support depending on the severity of the emergency, with the county as the primary tier, the state as the second and the federal agencies at the top.

This increased focus on improving emergency plans can be attributed in part to recent disasters, Schmidlin said.

“After a disaster, people are on heightened awareness,” he said.

This enthusiasm can last 10 and even 20 years, and Hurricane Katrina’s effects are likely to impact emergency planning across the United States for years to come.

Residents and students can take advantage of this time of heightened awareness to inform themselves about emergency plans and preparedness. Many resources are available on agency Web sites. Also, because tornadoes are perhaps the biggest natural disaster risk in the area, community members should familiarize themselves with the warnings and protocol.

When the local weather service issues a tornado warning, the city and university sound tornado sirens, Peach said. The sirens go off for nine continuous minutes to alert those outside to take shelter. People can leave their shelters 20 minutes after the siren ends.

The sirens are meant only to signify a tornado warning, which means a tornado has been sighted or indicated on radar. This differs from a tornado watch, which means weather conditions are favorable for a tornado to develop, Peach said.

“It doesn’t mean there’s a nuclear explosion in New York,” he said. “It doesn’t mean there’s termites hitting the tree.”

But no matter how much a community prepares for emergencies, it is impossible to prevent them, Schmidlin said.

“You can’t eliminate the impact of any national disaster,” he said.

Contact news correspondent Jessica Rothschuh at [email protected].