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Tonya Coultas: Creating Continuity Plans from the Ground Up

January 10, 2020

Did you know that only 35% of colleges and universities have continuity plans in place? Considering the volatile state of the world and the weather, that is a surprising statistic. In some cases, leaders do not prioritize continuity planning because there are other pressing needs, and the possibility of disaster seems far-fetched. Sometimes it’s tough for faculty and staff at an institution to know where to begin when creating a continuity plan. That’s why having someone like Tonya Coultas on board is so essential to securing the future of a college or university.

When Tonya Coultas arrived at Georgetown University after a 30-year career in the federal government, she realized that there were no comprehensive or long-term emergency plans in place at the school. The university had plans for small events like a snowstorm, a financial problem, or a loss of digital data; but there was no contingency plan for major events, or for anything beyond a 30-day disruption. In Coultas’s capacity as the assistant vice president and director of emergency management and safety, she needed to craft the major continuity plans for Georgetown University from the ground up. In a recent interview with Kuali, she shared the following practical methods for approaching emergency management at an educational institution.

Three Ways To Plan

Outline Planning: Some emergency management professionals like to create an outline, a step-by-step backbone of the plan that they can fill in and beef up as needed. According to Tonya Coultas, this kind of plan is “rational and sequential; it’s very easy to monitor and explain.”

Location Planning: In some cases, it can be beneficial to create separate plans based on location. For instance, a university with multiple campuses would need to craft separate plans for each one, since each location would have its own risk factors, unique facilities, and requirements.

Urgent Need Planning: This is a triage approach to continuity planning. In a crisis, which locations, people, or systems would need attention first? It’s a method of determining what absolutely needs to be done right away and what tasks may be able to wait until later.

The Fourth Approach

For Tonya Coultas, the most helpful way to look at planning involves multiple phases. “It’s a continuum from a crisis,” she said. “You talk about preparedness, prevention, you have a response… Continuity is really the mitigation of and the recovery from a crisis.” She combined elements of all three approaches to create a cohesive and flexible strategy, which ensures understanding and buy-in from the leaders of the institution. “Looking at it strategically, operationally, and tactically, and approaching them simultaneously, is working here for me at Georgetown,” Coultas said.

Buy-In From The Leadership

One of the toughest jobs for continuity planners is persuading institutional leaders to provide the necessary funding to prepare and set up the plan. When Coultas holds meetings with Georgetown administrators, she always gets to the main point right away. Her military background in continuity planning prompts this bold, up-front approach. She never tells administrators what to do; instead she phrases her plan like a question. “If we don’t pay to do A, B, and C, our university will be at X level of risk. Is that acceptable?” Then she lets the leaders make the decisions. If they decide that the risk is unacceptable, she can present her plan in more detail, with their buy-in established from the very beginning.

Discussing the acceptable levels of risk to the institution’s brand, reputation, stakeholder confidence, operations, and finances is a vital step in obtaining full cooperation between the emergency management team and the leaders of the school. Coultas sees herself as a facilitator, establishing relationships in the university so she can work from a foundation of trust and familiarity. That approach gives her the partners she needs to obtain sufficient funding and make an emergency plan work. For more ideas on how to get buy-in from leadership, see Kuali’s Leadership Support Guide.

The Importance Of Tabletop Exercises

A tabletop exercise involves testing the response to a particular scenario with the leadership and other individuals who would be in charge during that type of emergency. The scenario could involve a significant weather event, an earthquake, a terrorist attack, a pandemic, or a severe, extended power failure. When you conduct a tabletop exercise, you may decide to begin at the initial moment of the event, or fast-forward to several hours afterward. Move through the various aspects of crisis communications, decision-making, damage control, and other issues. The point of the exercise is not to debate decisions, but to role-play a test of the plan in a way that feels more real. If you need to participate, you may wish to hire a facilitator to help you run the exercise.

The People In The Plan

When you choose a scenario to practice or plan for, make sure that it doesn’t involve anyone in the group being at fault, or that individual may feel uncomfortable and defensive. Identify the scenario ahead of time and determine who needs to be present for your run-through of the plan, whether those attendees are representatives from the local hospital, law enforcement professionals, government officials, senior executives, faculty, or staff members. Each of those people needs to understand his or her role as an observer, participant, or evaluator, and they all need to know if they should bring any data, tools, or other items to the exercise.

Tabletop exercises are an interesting, engaging, and effective way to find out how leaders and others would react when faced with a specific situation, and to determine how prepared you are as an institution. After the game, the people involved will have a better understanding of the gaps in the plan, and they will have greater confidence in their ability to handle a similar scenario in real life.

Unexpected Benefits

Of course, you hope that your institution will never experience something like an earthquake or an active shooter event; but it’s best to prepare for crises so that you can save lives, minimize damage, and reduce the financial impact of an unexpected event. Since Tonya Coultas conducted her first tabletop exercise at Georgetown University, the campus dealt with an evacuation from their Kenya campus due to an outbreak of bacterial meningitis among the staff, and a few swastikas appearing on the Georgetown campus. Even though Coultas had not planned for those specific events, her earlier planning and preparation facilitated a swift and effective response. As you use Kuali software and other helpful tools to craft your emergency response and continuity plans, remember to partner with the intelligent and experienced people around you. “I am fortunate that I have some great colleagues,” Tonya Coultas said. “I leverage their expertise and talents… and we all work together and learn from each other.”

Watch the full interview with Tonya Coultas here. Interested in Kuali Ready? Visit our website and request a demo.

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