December 21, 2012

Building Emergency Action Plans still a work in progress

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A building on the campus of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. More than 400 buildings lack emergency evacuation plans.

Darrell Hoemann/The News-Gazette

A building on the campus of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. More than 400 buildings lack emergency evacuation plans.

By Sean Hermann/For CU-CitizenAccess.org — Nearly 400 buildings on the University of Illinois campus at Urbana-Champaign lack the required Building Emergency Action Plans that would instruct faculty, staff and students on what to do and where to go in the event of an emergency.

But campus safety officials say they are making steady progress in creating the evacuation plans for the buildings.

The current Building Emergency Action Plan initiative on campus began two years ago when Lieutenant Todd Short became director of the Office of Campus Emergency Planning. Short’s goal was to update each building’s plan under the new Building Emergency Action Plan template and to centralize all emergency procedures on campus.

“Regardless of the type of emergency that could occur, there are two actionable items – How do we evacuate if we need to get out of the building, and if for whatever reason we cannot evacuate, how do we secure ourselves where we are,” Short said. “The key to the success that we’re having right now is because of the fundamental principles that the plan was based on.”

Short believes these two principles could be “the difference between life and death.”

The need for evacuation plans at school buildings across the nation has received renewed attention in the wake of the mass killings of 20 school children and six teachers in Newtown, Ct. this month. And it was the mass shootings at Virginia Tech in 2007 and Northern Illinois University in 2008 that spurred legislation in Illinois to increase safety on college campuses.

In 2008, the Illinois General Assembly passed the Campus Security Enhancement Act of 2008, which mandated that all higher education institutions in Illinois develop an all-hazards emergency response plan, along with a campus violence prevention plan, with annual training.

Despite legislation, a review last year by a consortium of college journalism faculty and their students found that many Illinois colleges appear to not be following the security act, and state officials claim that it may be impossible to enforce the law, all while campus violence continues throughout the nation.

Both Steven Kazmierczak, the Northern Illinois gunman and James Holmes, the mass killer at a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado this past summer had connections to the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign campus. Kazmierczak was a graduate student in the School of Social Work at Illinois, and Holmes turned down an offer of admission to the University of Illinois Neuroscience Program.

While the University of Illinois does have an emergency response plan in place, as of mid-December, only 54 university-owned buildings out about 450 have completed Building Emergency Action Plans. More than 250 buildings have plans that are currently either in progress or under review. With these figures, the number of plans either completed or in progress has more than quadrupled since February 2012. Still, many buildings lack those safety plans that might end up saving lives.

Nonetheless, a spokesperson for the university says the pace of plan-making is appropriate.

“I don’t really think (the plans are) taking so long,” Robin Kaler, Assoc. Chancellor for Public Affairs said, “I think it’s taking as long as it takes to make the plans.”

When the Office of Emergency Planning was initially started up in 2003, emergency plans were organized by department. Short said he realized that organizing the plans in such a way could make it confusing for buildings housing multiple departments, such as Gregory Hall which houses the Department of Philosophy, the Department of History and the College of Media. He came up with the current template, which covers entire buildings, rather than specific departments.

 “The feedback I was getting from people was that (the plan) was too hard to fill out, there were too many things to think about and that it was too hard to revise and update,” Short said about the older versions of the plan.

To ease the method of filling out what was once 60 pages of material for building representatives to complete to submit a plan, Short condensed the plan template to less than 20 pages and simplified the language, which he said has helped immensely.

“The response has been incredible,” Short said in response to the new template. “If you make (the plans) more user-friendly for the end user, they’re not only more willing to complete it, it’s easier to review, update and exercise.”

Along with the shorter plan template, Short provides training sessions on policies and practical advice in the event of an emergency to all faculty and staff members directly involved in a building’s plan. In these sessions, he goes over each plan page by page, and also takes questions on the plan or any other procedures.

Recently, Short met with both Champaign and Urbana Fire Departments to discuss more efficient ways to conduct those training sessions. Starting after the New Year, Short, with the help of local firefighters, will begin to conduct more formalized versions of the training sessions for major stakeholders within each building’s plan, allowing a quicker turnaround time in completing the training.

“It makes our job a lot easier,” Urbana Fire Chief Michael Dilley said of the training sessions.

While the Urbana Fire Department has their own Incident Action Plans, which specifically focus on the incident itself and the type of response the department will need on a call, the Building Emergency Action Plans cover the safety of the people in the building.

Also available is a repository with information and building-specific plans that responders can access in the event of an emergency. This allows responders to review the plans and know who to contact and where to locate people during an incident.

While the campus is covered under the campus-wide Emergency Operations Plan, many campus buildings differ in layout and building equipment and processes. The individualized Building Emergency Action Plans indentify evacuation assembly and storm refuge areas, building emergency management team members, emergency resources, persons with functional needs within the building, along with many other tools and procedures.

At Urbana-Champaign campus, the person responsible for compiling the Building Emergency Action Plan also varies for each building. Despite the slow process, Short hopes to have plans for remainder of the campus buildings completed within the next two years. Even with this goal, Short admitted that his job will never be done.

“Once a plan is submitted, there’s always updates to it, there’s always training aspect of it,” Short said. “It’s a perpetual planning cycle that never ends, and that’s the way it should be.”

Short is now focusing on receiving plans from buildings near the more concentrated areas on campus, including residential-type buildings and high-traffic buildings on the main quad. As plans for those buildings are completed, he plans to shift his focus to lesser used buildings, such as those near the south farms.

Until then, many buildings will be without officially reviewed emergency plans.

While specific Building Emergency Action Plans are not public, the Office of Emergency Planning website features a blank template of the plans, along with an emergency response guide on the office’s website. For more information, visit The Office of Emergency Planning.