Disaster Response

Tips for Higher Education Disaster Response

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From 11/1/12 Open Conference Call Sponsored by Vermont and Connecticut Campus Compacts:

The following tips were provided by campus representatives who have been heavily engaged in disaster response over the past three years.  This is by no means an inclusive list of every strategy or tip, but represents the best thinking of a number of campuses who have lived the experience.

To add more tips and resources, please visit the “Campus Compact Response to Sandy” Facebook page.

  1. Get Buy-in and Support from your President
  2. Centralize your Response Operations
  3. Work through Key Community Partners
  4. Harness, Celebrate, and Oversee Student Energy
  5. Prepare Students (and other Volunteers)
  6. Be Flexible
  7. Be in it for the Long Haul
  8. Consider coordinating with other campuses
  9. Be patient
  10. Be Safe

In further detail…

1. Get Buy-in and Support from your President: ask your President to support disaster response both symbolically and fiscally.  He or she can play a lead role in setting the stage for what you can accomplish, and making your work more possible.  The President’s office might:

A. Designate a primary office or central hub for disaster response (see below) and publicly communicate that information to the entire campus, and beyond;
B. Create a funding stream to support disaster response activities (including supplies, transportation, meals, etc.);
C. Oversee the reallocation of campus resources to disaster relief when possible (ranging from equipment to staff time);
D. Create a fund to which alumni and friends can donate that will support campus members who have been impacted by the disaster;
E. Call on your legal support or risk management office to support you in creating the necessary guidelines for safe response.

This manual is a resource for faculty, staff and students at colleges and universities, who are interested in bringing Ready Campus to their academic institution. This initiative draws together campuses and their community partners to improve regional response to disasters by working together on a common goal of emergency preparedness

2. Centralize your Response Operations: we know that people all over campus will want to contribute to disaster response and recovery.  Designating one office or staff person as the key point of contact or the “central hub” of operations can help a campus to better track their activities, ensure the safety of volunteers, and ease the demand on community.

Community Emergency Response Team (CERT)
The CERT listings for a State are for programs that are sponsored by State, county and local emergency management agencies or their representative and follow the training guidelines and objectives contained in the CERT material on the CERT website. Participants taking CERT should receive the basic response skills and organizational training contained in the CERT materials.

3. Work through Key Community Partners: it is essential to have one or two community contacts with whom you will work to disseminate volunteers or other support.  As one of our speakers said, “we did not enter a home or do anything unless it was approved by the emergency management leader who served as our primary contact.”  You do not want volunteers showing up unannounced or unwanted and over-burdening the community.  Remember that it may take time to develop those contacts.

Carrie Williams-Howe (Vermont Campus Compact) has written a DRAFT article, “Higher education as a partner in disaster response“, based on interviews with campuses in Vermont, which is currently under review by the Journal of Higher Education Outreach and Engagement.

4. Harness, Celebrate, and Oversee Student Energy:  your students may be eager to volunteer, to the point where they are out doing it on their own.  In addition to intervening from a risk management and safety standpoint (which you may need to do), remember to celebrate that energy as you try to streamline it into more structured and supervised activities.  You might:

A. Invite students to serve as organizers of volunteer response or fundraising efforts;
B. Draw on students’ skills with social media for communicating about opportunities;
C. Students who are clamoring to volunteer may be disappointed with slow-moving response; remember to communicate frequently and clearly about the approach your campus is taking and how you want students to be involved.  No communication can lead students (and others) to believe you are not acting.
D. Create opportunities for students to reflect on their volunteer services, either in the moment of service or through a more formalized curricular or co-curricular program.

A copy of the syllabus from “Rebuilding Vermont” – a service-learning course that engaged University of Vermont students in disaster recovery over the course of two semesters.

5. Prepare Students (and other Volunteers): as you harness the energy of students and other volunteers, remember that they will be walking into very difficult situations and dealing with individuals who are going through major trauma in some cases.  In addition to safety briefings, consider designing a briefing for students on the emotional impacts of disaster and how they might prepare for those scenarios.

Never doubt the value of a student volunteer sitting down with someone who has been impacted to simply listen to their story.

An online journal edition focused on student response to natural disasters, including stories from Vermont and from New Zealand: http://www.columbiasc.edu/files/pdf/InternFall2012editedSept2012.pdf

6. Be Flexible: communities may not know what they need until the day before or the day of volunteering, and that need may change on the fly.  Plan as much as you can to ensure your students are prepared, but keep the door open to a change of plans, a change of venue, or confusion at the service site.  If confusion occurs, do your best to solve it but also talk with your students about the haze that can surround disaster response.   As Paul Loeb describes, sometimes you need to be able to move beyond the “perfect standard” of knowing all of the details before you take the first step (as long as you stay safe).

7. Be in it for the Long Haul: disaster response soon turns to disaster recovery, which can last years.  Think about how your campus might be involved over the long-haul, not just the first few weeks.  When the news stops covering it, and people stop donating, will you still be there?

8. Consider coordinating with other campuses:
Local Campuses: if there are multiple campuses in the area that was affected, how can you coordinate your efforts and/or you communication with local community contacts?  Can you alleviate some of the pressure on the community by naming one key contact?  Can you identify particular skills that can be contributed by each campus to clarify when each might be contacted?  How could you work with a local volunteer management organization or Campus Compact state office to facilitate some of this coordination?

Distant Campuses: consider creating partnerships between campuses on the ground and those who are further away.  Could the local community college, for example, coordinate with community colleges from afar to increase volunteer resources and other support services?

9. Be patient:  inundating communities with well-meaning volunteers before they are ready can cause more harm than good.  Be patient as you make efforts to connect, and keep the lines of communication open.  Ensure that your campus will be ready when the community is ready by taking the steps described above even as you wait to see where you are needed.

10.  Be Safe: ensure that your campus is ok before you begin serving others, and make sure that you have taken all safety precautions before heading out to volunteer.  If the site is not safe, or your students do not have the right skills to help, don’t be afraid to say no.

And once you’ve made it through this response effort, don’t forget to prepare for the next!


*Thank you to Nicole DiDomenico from Norwich University, Lane Perry from Western Carolina University (formerly of the University of Canterbury), Carrie Williams Howe of Vermont Campus Compact (formerly of the University of Vermont) and Saul Petersen of Connecticut Campus Compact, for helping to compile this list.

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