Friday, November 13, 2009

Is your university ready for a disaster? Plan and prepare now

At colleges and universities across the nation, millions of bright young minds regularly bask in a safe environment of learning and personal growth (among other things, but we won’t go there). But even though they are a sanctuary for education, colleges and universities are just as vulnerable to disasters as anywhere else.

Hurricanes, earthquakes and other disasters can halt classes, disrupt campus life, damage buildings and leave students stranded with nowhere to go. Luckily, this is where planning and preparation come in. So grab your pencil and paper (or laptop and iPhone) and settle in for a lesson in campus disaster preparedness.

According to the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the first step in creating a disaster-resistant university is for college administrators to identify specific hazards that could affect their school and students. Among the possibilities outlined in a recent FEMA preparedness guide (PDF) that schools of higher learning should prepare for are earthquakes, fires, floods, winds and tornadoes. Officials should evaluate how ready they are for each type of disaster and take action to be prepared. For example, schools that are vulnerable to earthquakes should think about strengthening floors and walls, while those at risk for hurricanes should reinforce window glass and frames.

All schools — no matter where they are — should create campus-wide emergency procedures, inform personnel of risks and policies, and install backup systems such as computer databases and electric generators.

It’s also a good idea to form an advisory committee at your school made up of students, faculty and staff. Create a plan of action for preparing the school for disasters, such as efficient emergency routes and meeting points during a crisis and campus-wide notification alerts. Set up an emergency notification plan using tools such as text messaging or Twitter that can be used to notify students and staff of disaster threats.

Coordinating planning efforts with local emergency and medical response teams such as the fire department, police department and local hospitals is a good step in ensuring that measures are put in place. Local government, city councils, state representatives and nonprofit organizations can help create your disaster plan.

Keep in mind that universities and colleges are not only places of learning, they are a home for many, and our homes are worth protecting.

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