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A Grassroots Approach to Continuity Planning with David Farris

January 10, 2020

A continuity planner’s job is to look into the future, anticipate possibilities, and calculate responses. In a business continuity plan, there is an initial reaction, a long-term plan if the disruption continues, and a recovery plan once things begin to stabilize. It’s an incredibly complex job, especially when you’re dealing with an educational institution with a plethora of departments, buildings, labs, and offices. For an emergency management specialist moving into a new role, an existing foundation of basic plans is a helpful starting point; but that foundation isn’t always available.

As the Director of Safety and Emergency Management for George Mason University, David Farris had to create and integrate a continuity plan for the school from absolutely nothing.

Understanding The Setting And Potential Scenarios

David Farris first arrived at George Mason University in 2004 and started out as a chemical hygiene officer in the laboratory safety office. Gradually, that office transformed and became the office of safety, emergency, and enterprise management. Over the course of 14 years, Farris and his immediate supervisor and a few others worked together to build the university’s emergency plans from scratch.

With 36,000 students and over 7,000 employees, George Mason University is the largest educational institution in Northern Virginia. The school stands just outside of Washington, D.C., and its proximity to the capital opens up the possibility for a broad range of critical scenarios. Natural disasters, terrorism, man-made disasters, and interregional events are taken into consideration when Farris and his team are conducting their continuity planning.

Starting From Scratch

When Farris was asked to look at the school’s contingency plans in case of emergency, he discovered that they were severely lacking. In Farris’s words, “We started looking at continuity of operations and saying, ‘Okay, this is a really big gap. We’ve kind of got some responsiveness and preparedness…’ but we recognized that we had no recovery plans whatsoever.”

“We recognized that we had no recovery plans whatsoever.”

Right around this time, the governor of the state issued an executive order, requiring all state agencies to participate in continuity of operations (COOP) planning. This order came at just the right time for Farris and his team, and they were able to use that order to convince the administration to provide some funding (about $150,000) for basic continuity and recovery planning.

Creating The First Plan

Farris began by identifying all the core functions of the university, such as public safety, facilities, infrastructure, ITS systems, academics, human resources and payroll, and purchasing. He brought in a contractor at first, to help with initial momentum, and then he began to work with representatives from each of those core services.

That first year, Farris and his team held around 50 meetings with various units in the institution. They collected 800 pages of surveys as well, all in Excel format, to aid with planning the details of emergency response for the various units.

However, after the first year, the partnership with Farris’s team and the contractor ended. Farris wondered, “How are we going to sustain this process moving forward? How are we going to continue to keep people engaged in this?” They began to struggle with collecting updated surveys and keeping all the different versions of the surveys organized.

Discovering Kuali Ready

Finally, overwhelmed by the sheer amount of data and organizational work, Farris and his team did some research and discovered Kuali Ready.

“We looked through the Kuali product and quickly realized that A) it captured all of the information that we were already capturing. B) It actually had more information that they were trying to solicit from COOP stakeholders and C) it was incredibly convenient and much easier to manage.”

The stakeholders who Farris approached about the software liked the idea of the application much better than the clumsy document management process the team had previously used. “It was just much more efficient start to finish; so it was an easy sell,” Farris recalled.

Addressing Silos

Today, within George Mason University, there are around 37 units who each have their own individual plans within the Kuali system. According to Farris, higher education is full of silos–units that function within themselves and are often unaware of what other units are doing or planning. This can be a dangerous situation, since the units are typically dependent on one another.

In an emergency scenario, the silo mindset poses serious risks. That’s why Farris said, “I can’t overstress is the importance of sitting down with those units and being engaged with that process of them going through and identifying their critical functions, explaining them, and then identifying dependencies.” Those on Farris’ team who help integrate a continuity plan have a unique perspective; they are able to see how all the silos relate to each other, and it’s important to pass on that vision to the people working within the units.

Prioritizing Plans

When it comes to whose unit or department gets priority, the job of a continuity planner becomes more tricky. There are some necessary conversations that have to occur, and some of those can be difficult when department leaders think their unit’s needs should have precedence. On a regular basis, Farris and his team collect information about critical functions, identify core infrastructure using Kuali tools, and decide what receives priority in the final plan. “We tell everyone why they can’t be back up in 12 hours like they want—i.e., the health clinic comes before getting the engineering department back up and running,” explains Farris.

Informative meetings, workshops, and tabletop scenarios help the department leaders gain the right viewpoint. They begin to see their role in the institution more clearly and develop a tolerance for a longer wait time before they’re back up and running in a particular scenario.

Balancing Different Goals

David Farris takes a dual approach to his continuity plan. Of course, since he serves a university, education is the number one priority. He has several plans that involve continuity for educational services; for example, if a building is quarantined or damaged and can’t be used for classes, he has a plan for finding space for all those faculty members and students.

However, in specific scenarios, student safety must come first. “I understand that we need to do wellness and counseling services, and that might be the thing that comes right back after police and public safety, heat, food, and those types of things,” said Farris. “But when we look at COOP, we look specifically at what services we need in order to provide food, shelter, and protection for university students first.”

Some tasks have to be left to the departments themselves, and that includes digital data backups. The continuity planning team might start the conversation with some questions, such as “Where is your data stored? Do you have backups? Which server holds the backups?” Then the individual offices and labs can design their own strategy for data preservation and recovery, while Farris and his team focus their energies on the big-picture plans.

Integrate A New Plan

Many emergency management professionals will advise starting at the top, getting buy-in from the leadership, and then filtering down through the institution. David Farris has adopted a different approach to integrate a continuity plan.

“First, I formulate my own ideas and get them on paper, and then I share those ideas with the stakeholders—sort of a grassroots thing.”

Farris sits down to build a plan as far as he can, and then he calls a meeting with the stakeholders that have more information. Farris tells stakeholder, “This is what I’m thinking. Here are some ideas; here’s why we need it. Here’s why it’s valuable; here’s how it can help you.”

Since there is already a partly formulated plan to work with, the meeting is more efficient, and everyone is able to review the plan and make edits as needed.

Emergency management is all about perspectives—being able to see the future from a new perspective, or being able to adopt a department’s perspective and create a workable continuity plan. With Kuali software, a good team, and partnership from staff and faculty, you can help your institution maintain a balanced perspective of cooperation and preparedness.

Watch the full interview with David Farris. Learn more about what Kuali Ready can do for you.

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