The anniversary of the September 11, 2001, terrorist strikes will always be a sad and bitter one. Yet in the years since, that tragedy has given rise to some serious introspective thought about the roles we play as individuals, communities, businesses, and institutions of higher education during emergency situations.
In fact, the role of institutions in assisting our home communities in times of natural or human-caused disasters may be the ultimate "town and gown" issue. When a crisis arises, the involvement of IHEs can have a significant impact on the health and well-being of our students and our neighbors.
As IHE leaders well know, good relations with neighboring residents and governments is critical. Campuses are assets to their surrounding communities. They are economic engines for local business, can provide expertise and insight on a range of issues, and can be a source of civic pride. That said, there are cases where the relationship can be a strained one. Why not become an asset when our local governments and citizens need help the most?
Set aside for the moment the tragic threat of terrorist attacks. In 2004, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) listed 68 major disaster declarations, seven snow emergencies, and 42 fire-management assistance alerts. These numbers are astoundingly high, even by historical terms. In the past decade, there were nearly double the number of disaster declarations, compared to the previous decade, and more than any other decade on record.
Your campus, students, or staff may have been involved in some aspect of the prevention, mitigation, or recovery efforts related to these natural disasters that collectively impacted nearly every state in the union.
During the 1990s, hurricanes and typhoons were the most costly of weather-related events, costing FEMA nearly $7.8 billion. A total of 88 declarations were issued for these storms, including a single-year high of 19 in 1999.
Flooding resulting from severe storms and other causes was the most frequently declared type disaster, with more than $7.3 billion committed by FEMA in response and recovery funding. The most costly of these were the Midwest floods in 1993 ($1.17 billion), the Red River Valley floods in 1997 ($730.8 million), and Tropical Storm Alberto in 1994 ($544.2 million).
In 1972, College Misericordia in Dallas (Pa.) played host to more than 1,000 victims of hurricane-spawned Susquehanna River flooding in the Wyoming Valley near Wilkes-Barre. Although there was no formal plan to do so, dozens of cities and towns along the river sent the injured, some by helicopter, to our high-ground campus to be cared for in a residence hall converted into a field hospital. In fact, 52 babies were born here during that summer as our campus served as a hospital for nearly two months. Your campus is likely to have a similar experience sometime in its history.
During the 9/11 news coverage, this incident in College Misericordia history flooded my memory. Just as government has done on the local, state, and federal levels, so too must IHEs re-examine their roles as community resources, both in preventing and mitigating losses of all types during crisis situations.
Most campuses have disaster plans and are prepared to secure their own people and facilities if something happens. Programs such as the Disaster Resistant University have helped. Many of these plans are highly sophisticated. Additionally, a growing number of IHEs excel at educating tomorrow's leaders in disaster and emergency management. But how prepared are we to help our local civic leaders and neighbors when a disaster strikes? Experts have learned that responses must be regional, not isolated to one town or one campus.
In Pennsylvania, a program called Ready Campus was tested during the 2004-2005 academic year. The project generated a best practices manual and four regional training workshops for public and private two-year and four-year colleges and universities. Eighty colleges in the state, including Misericordia, participated.
The training was designed to provide a forum for higher-education officials to discuss with community and emergency management officials how we can organize our campuses, form community partnerships, and sustain these partnerships over time with the explicit purpose of preparing for a community crisis.
In collaboration with Pennsylvania Campus Compact, the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency, all sectors of higher education in the state, the American Red Cross, and the state's Office of Homeland Security, the project focused on three key areas: campus facilities, "human capital," and service learning.
Think for just a moment about all the facilities it takes to run your institution daily. Instead of "reading, writing, and arithmetic" during an emergency, your spare "food, clothing, and shelter" could prove helpful.
Also, your faculty and staff are experts in communications, technology, and other disciplines. How could they help?
Perhaps most important in this consideration are our students. We can educate future citizens who will be volunteers and leaders during the emergencies of tomorrow, no matter what their academic major. For those IHEs who are not already teaching emergency-management disciplines, colleges and universities can expand their civic engagement agenda by adding a new dimension to the work: integrating emergency preparation and response activities into existing course work and other public service programs.
This accepted teaching method, "service learning," can enhance the learning objectives of existing courses, inspire civic responsibility in students, and infuse goodwill into the community with measurable results.
Many campuses have plans that consider these resources and service-learning opportunities. A recent report by Campus Compact estimated that American college students engaged in service learning contributed $4.4 billion to the communities they served.
As a whole, however, there is more we could do to integrate sufficiently with local fire, police, and emergency management agencies and their plans. Large universities may have an in-house emergency management coordinator and a highly sophisticated plan, but they are always working to better integrate their efforts with the municipalities and counties surrounding their campuses.
The Ready Campus project issued a best practices manual designed specifically for higher education. It aims to guide colleges and universities through the process of integrating their plans with those in their communities.
The manual provides instructions for forming community partnerships. These can include, for example, agreements on joint emergency-management activities, training of campus volunteers by the American Red Cross and other organizations, and an inventory of all campus and community needs, assets, and personal contacts.
The most popular sessions at the Ready Campus trainings in Pennsylvania were the risk and liability assessment overviews. When getting involved in community emergency management, most good managers want to understand the risks involved. Although laws and regulations vary from state to state, Ready Campus provides detailed advice on identifying risks, taking the necessary precautions, keeping meticulous records, and reviewing the risk management plan regularly.
The manual also shows how to integrate service learning and emergency management activities into 10 sample academic disciplines. These "modules" incorporate relevant emergency management activities into existing courses. Faculty from colleges around the state are now developing brand-new courses and community projects as part of Ready Campus.
Other Ready Campus-inspired events at Pennsylvania campuses in 2005 included American Red Cross disaster training to prepare the campus to serve as a shelter, open-forum discussions with community leaders held on campuses, expert training and mock disaster drills for a group of colleges and municipal managers, and campuswide disaster training for all employees.
The Office of Domestic Preparedness of the Department of Homeland Security greatly assisted in launching Ready Campus. They see it as an innovative and financially efficient way to enhance cooperation between communities using IHEs as important assets.
The next step for Ready Campus: Secure the necessary funds to sustain the momentum attained in Pennsylvania by offering the model to other states. This includes updating and sharing the manual and providing training.
Clearly, IHEs are first and foremost in the business of education, but good town and gown relations are important to that end. Cooperation and collaboration are the underpinnings of Ready Campus. It is also about preparing our graduates to be of help to their communities in times of great need. It is fitting that we help others while we help our students prepare for the future.
Michael MacDowell is president of College Misericordia in Dallas, Pa., and the architect of Ready Campus, www.readycampus.org.