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Feature

Terry Cook

Terry Cook became director of the Department of Emergency Management in August 2004 after 23 years as a police officer in Apple Valley and six years as police chief in West St. Paul.

U enhances emergency preparedness

By Rick Moore

Aug. 1, 2007

When all goes well, nobody really notices the work they do. But when the unexpected happens, they take center stage.

Such is life for the staff of the University of Minnesota's Department of Emergency Management (DEM), a four-person unit housed in a building at 2221 University Avenue, just south of the site of the new football stadium on the Twin Cities campus. In offices next to its Emergency Operations Center (EOC), nerve central in times of an emergency, the team continually fine-tunes its plans to help all the U's campuses prepare for and cope with disasters.

The U's preparedness was put to the test on April 18, when a bomb threat forced the evacuation of eight buildings on the East Bank of the Twin Cities campus in Minneapolis.

The University needed to clear all of the buildings in question and explain what was happening--as quickly as possible--to staff, students, media, and the general public while emergency personnel conducted a sweep for explosives.

"Any time you do a disaster drill, the number one issue is communication," says Terry Cook, director of the department. "It was no exception this time."

"[The Virginia Tech shootings and the U's bomb threat] helped everyone in the University community realize how important [preparedness] is," says O'Brien. "They really sharpened everyone's understanding of the need for vigilance and cooperation. Safety is everyone's job."

The U immediately issued an emergency message through some of its 400 tone-alert radios. It also sent out a broadcast e-mail to about 75,000 students, faculty, and staff.

By and large, the communication methods were successful. Most of the tone alert radios worked well, but some did not, had been moved, or weren't heard by anyone.

The email system also showed some weak spots. "It took anywhere from minutes to hours to receive the e-mail," says Cook, which "obviously isn't fast enough." The U's Office of Information Technology worked on the issue the following week and did extensive testing. "Now they've got it down to 9-12 minutes to send out the same number of e-mails," Cook notes.

"We learned a lot about what did work and what we needed to work on," adds Kathleen O'Brien, the University's vice president of University services.

As a result of the bomb threat, O'Brien formed a group to look at additional communication methods like text messaging, digital message boards, and outdoor speakers to help convey information in an emergency, says Cook.

"What we've determined is that redundancy is good," he says. "Having several different technologies available gives you the best chance of getting the warning to the most people."

Adds O'Brien: "Even the systems we rely on, we're fine-tuning now."

Given the scope of the threat in April, Cook says he was pleased with the results of the evacuation. "I thought it went very well," he says. "You're always going to have some issues and some problems. I don't know if the U has ever evacuated eight large buildings at the same time.... It gave us a real-life opportunity to see how it would go."

O'Brien points out that other emergency responders were impressed with how University personnel handled the challenge. "Our colleagues from the FBI and other jurisdictions complimented us on how well our Emergency Operations Center worked," she says.

Expanded resources, programs, and equipment

Since 9/11, the U has spent roughly $12 million in additional security hardware and systems, and now has 950 cameras in place across all of the campuses, according to O'Brien, who has administrative oversight over the Department of Public Safety and the Department of Emergency Management.

The U has also doubled the number of automatic external defibrillators (AEDs) in buildings; it now has about 200 AEDs in place at a cost of about $1,800 a piece around its campuses. "There isn't another university nationwide that would approach that number of units," Cook says.

DEM has been evolving in recent years, too. It added Kristy Gisch as an emergency management coordinator who works with the U's Duluth, Crookston, Morris, and Rochester campuses. "She's helping us to expand programs that weren't previously on the coordinate campuses," says Cook.

Other newer programs include planning for a pandemic flu, in which the department works closely with the Academic Health Center, and developing and updating "operational continuity" plans, which look at the critical functions of key University service units and what staff are needed to carry on their operations. There is a coordinating committee for pandemic flu and operational continuity on each U campus.

DEM, by virtue of adopting the National Incident Management System, is certified by the state and federal government and eligible to receive emergency preparedness grants directly.

The department received a grant from the state to retrofit an emergency vehicle into a Mobile Command Post. And this past spring, the U also applied for and received two FEMA trailers--used in Hurricane Katrina--that will serve as expansion "incident command" space.

The goal, of course, is to be over prepared for incidents that rarely happen. But in light of the shootings this spring at Virginia Tech--"every university community's nightmare," O'Brien says--and the bomb threat at the U days later, the improbable had suddenly become possible.

"[Those events] helped everyone in the University community realize how important [preparedness] is," says O'Brien. "They really sharpened everyone's understanding of the need for vigilance and cooperation. Safety is everyone's job."