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Katrina, 9/11 and Boston Marathon: Lessons from a Continuity Planner

January 10, 2020

On a clear, bright Tuesday morning in Boston, an inexperienced backhoe operator tore into two bundles of telecom fiber about 15 blocks away from Boston University. The university’s phone lines went dead and Steve Morash, Director of Emergency Management at BU, was expected to find a solution.

Planning for the unexpected doesn’t seem urgent when everything is going well. In the same way, the leaders of colleges and universities may not feel concerned about continuity planning when all systems are functioning and enrollment is up.

Enter a broken pipe, a blizzard, a hurricane, or an outbreak of serious illness, and that mindset can change in an instant. An emergency manager’s job suddenly becomes crucial, and the leaders of an institution turn to the emergency management team with a torrent of questions: “When will this be fixed? How can we keep everyone safe? Why aren’t the systems back online yet?”

At Boston University, Steve Morash and his team are the ones who step up in an emergency. It’s his job to think ahead and create a plan to deal with traumatic scenarios or weather events—like Hurricane Katrina.

The Pain Of Insufficient Planning

Tulane University was crippled by Hurricane Katrina’s destruction in New Orleans. The university closed for four months; and even after it reopened, the financial impact of the hurricane and the closure continued to affect the school’s profitability. A strict budget overhaul, layoffs, lower admission standards, and program cuts were necessary just to keep the university open.

The university rebounded, but it took time. Tulane played a vital role in New Orleans’ rebuilding and recovery, with faculty and students devoting countless hours to community service projects. The university became known as a destination for students interested in first-class education paired with strong community engagement. In 2010, the school had an impressive applicant pool of 44,000 for the 1,500 undergraduate spaces. But for those first two years after the hurricane, Tulane University and its students suffered and struggled to recover. Other universities watched Tulane’s recovery in empathy, wondering what they would have done had the hurricane hit their own institution.

The Process Of Creating Solutions

Steve Morash was already working at Boston University in emergency management before Katrina struck. Tulane’s plight inspired Morash to think even more carefully about potential disasters and how to cope with them. If a significant weather event or some other disaster struck, how would the staff at the school recover? What strategies and backup plans might allow the university’s mission to continue? What would the overall impact be on the education of students?

The first step in creating an emergency management strategy is to envision possible emergency scenarios. Next, the team creates continuity plans that would allow basic needs to be met and essential systems to keep functioning. They determine what backup systems or equipment are necessary and present those recommendations to administrators.

Following the development of a concrete plan, the emergency response team needs to practice those scenarios with the faculty and staff who would be directly affected by such an event. When a major Boston bridge was under construction, affecting access to campus, Morash took the opportunity to practice some of the continuity plans. He told the administration, “This is a good time to test your business continuity planning. Take the continuity of operations plan (COOP) out, and see what can you do.”

Common Gaps In Continuity Plans

One of the worst enemies to emergency management is denial. People may not think that a particular event could happen to them or their institution; but planning for the unexpected scenario is important, even if it seems unlikely. In the case of the Boston Marathon bombings, parts of the city were shut down, and no-access orders were enacted. The Boston U emergency management team faced the problem of feeding and caring for 11,000 students in the dorms, in spite of the no-access orders. When leaders think “It would never happen here,” an emergency management director is there to say, “It could happen. Let’s make a plan just in case.”

Another common gap in continuity planning comes from a failure to think of everything. There might be a plan in place for feeding students and staff if everyone is trapped on campus, but what about the animals on campus? “I’ve got 30,000 mice on my medical campus,” says Steve Morash. Of course, the students, faculty, and staff are the priority, but Morash has to think about the research animals and their needs as well. On every campus, there are major, visible needs, and then there are other needs that should also be included in the plan.

The Cost Of A Small Mistake

For Steve Morash, the most likely disasters aren’t related to terrorism or a hurricane—the immediate danger lies in the little things. He worries about broken water pipes that flood the IT department, or snowstorms that prevent normal operations. Now, he knows to fear backhoe operators as well. Luckily, Morash was able to resolve the telecom fiber issue at BU within the week. In just a few minutes, something can occur that puts normal university functions in jeopardy.

The Importance Of The End Users

Shortly after September 11, instead of making his plans on paper, Morash decided to try a more sophisticated system. “We sought the Kuali Ready product, and we thought it would make putting together business continuity and COOP plans a lot simpler and a lot easier for our end users.” After all, the success of any continuity plan depends on building relationships with the people at the institution. A committee can plan, but they won’t always be the ones responsible for acting in a crisis. With Kuali Ready software, the people in various departments of an educational institution can develop and configure their own continuity plans for their unique situations and various scenarios. Empowering those individuals and building relationships with them creates an atmosphere of trust and preparedness that can carry an institution through any crisis.

See the full Kuali Live interview with Steve Morash here. Learn more about Kuali Ready.

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