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What did we learn from the tornado drill?

As part of Georgia’s Severe Weather Awareness Week (February 4-8, 2013), we held a tornado drill on the Southern Polytechnic campus on Wednesday morning;  the exercise had two parts.  At 10 a.m., the warning sirens blared, and everyone on campus was expected to gather in the refuge locations that had been identified with green signs.  Text and e-mail messages and phone calls also notified everyone via our campus emergency notification system, Hornet Alert.  WSB-TV was on campus for this drill.  You’ll see some familiar faces in Ross Cavitt’s report, which is available on YouTube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_jfTvgaUMWY&feature=youtu.be.  

After about 10 minutes, the all-clear sounded – and the Executive Policy Group was asked to report to the conference room in Building B (Administration Building) to talk through how we would manage the incident, as though it were happening in real time.  Lt. Duane Manns, of SPSU’s Police Department, did a great job of planning the scenario for this tabletop exercise, and he and Chief Bauer kept us all busy.

B-120, the Emergency Operations Center, was packed.  We had invited representatives from a number of coordinating agencies to join us and provide feedback afterwards on how we can improve our processes.  We were joined by representatives from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), Georgia Emergency Management Agency, Cobb County Emergency Management Agency, Kennestone Wellstar Hospital, Metro Ambulance Services, the Department of Homeland Security, Marietta Power & Water, American Red Cross, Georgia Tech’s Office of Emergency Preparedness, and the Georgia State Patrol.  The 18 visitors outnumbered the SPSU people in the room – we couldn’t wedge in enough chairs for everyone to sit.  And these colleagues provided valuable and interesting feedback.

The hypothetical scenario that we worked on assumed that the campus (and several nearby areas, including the Cobb County Transit bus station) had sustained serious damage from the tornado.  Over the next hour and a half, we were updated on a series of developments, including reports of structural damage to the Academic Building (H), Stingers (X), Hornet Village Building 100 (R701), and the Library (C).  Trees were down.  Injuries were reported, and as more information came in, we realized that buildings H and X had lost their roofs, part of the top floor of Hornet Village 100 had been destroyed, and all the glass windows on the south side of the Library had blown out.  News media had shown up at various places on campus, and reporters were doing live interviews of students.  Responders discovered two fatalities and, ultimately, 11 people with serious injuries who were transported to three different area hospitals.  A grounds-crew member was reported missing.  Students were calling to find out if they had to come to class, and parents who were unable to contact their students were showing up in my office demanding to talk with me.  As you can imagine, we were busy!

During this drill, we focused on the top priorities of (1) safety of students, faculty, staff, and visitors on campus and (2) communicating information about what was happening to the university and the broader community.  Additional priorities were to stabilize the damage, prevent further damage to facilities, and start the process of cleaning up and figuring out how the University would continue to operate.  However, life safety and communications were critical in that first hour.

What did we learn?  A lot.  Here are the top five lessons, from my perspective. 

1)     The tornado training sessions that we have held over the last couple of weeks were invaluable in helping people know where to go, in case of a severe weather warning, and in reminding building coordinators about their responsibilities in an emergency.  The coordinators did a great job of donning their vests and directing people to safe locations during the drill.  It was plain bad luck that Cobb County decided to test its sirens at 9:00 a.m. on Wednesday morning, just prior to our planned exercise at 10:00 a.m.  Some people were confused by the additional test, but, in a sense, it added a sense of realism to the drill;  emergencies don’t happen on a predictable schedule.

2)     Having redundant communication systems is critically important.  E-mail can be slow, even for emergency communications, and the delivery speed can depend on the amount of traffic, the receiver’s location, and even the cellular carrier.  Many students (and some faculty and staff) utilize e-mail less than text messaging, and use of cell phones as actual phones varies as well.  Utilizing all the available communication tools for emergency alerts is important, as is using a range of ways to keep people informed during an incident.  The website will be the most robust of these tools, but voicemail, e-mail, texts, and managing the message with the news media are vital, as well.

3)     University Information Technology Services has a clear plan for backup support, with both on-campus backup for servers in another building and off-site hosting of the website in Athens (Georgia).  This backup system is especially important given our reliance on electronic methods for communication.

4)     Our external observers offered many good suggestions about how the Executive Policy Group can function more effectively.  One aspect of this is the need for us to consistently use the Incident Command System (ICS) that is endorsed by the National Incident Management System.  We were well aware of this requirement, but our visitors – particularly those from FEMA – suggested some additional ways in which we could implement the system.  Some members of the Senior Staff took ICS training several years ago, but it’s time for a refresher – and for new training for recently added members of the group.  We’ll be following through on this training soon, and we will invite all interested members of the University community to join us.

5)     But perhaps the most important lesson from this tornado drill was learning about the array of resources available to us from outside of campus.  County, state, and federal emergency management agencies can provide assistance, as can the WellStar Hospital System, Red Cross, Marietta fire and police departments, the Georgia Highway Patrol, and other institutions in the University System of Georgia.  Having a colleague from Georgia Tech as an observer for this exercise was valuable, especially in providing perspective for our colleagues from other agencies.  He emphasized to them the unique challenges of managing an emergency on a campus, which cannot be effectively “locked down” and where accounting for the whereabouts and condition of every student is completely unrealistic.  In an emergency, we would all work together to manage the incident and move as quickly as possible to a resolution.

I appreciate the good work of the University Police, the entire University community, and all our community partners in using this “tornado drill” opportunity to test our systems and find ways to improve our ability to respond to emergencies.  I look forward to incorporating what we have learned into our policies, our procedures, and our responses.