Safety & Security (Prepare and Be Aware)

It Might Happen: Tips for Preparing for Natural Disasters

snow storm


Natural disaster planning is a broad and deep topic, with lots to do and lots to know. There’s weather, personal preparedness, evacuation, shelter, communication and more. Here are tips from the pros regarding natural disaster planning that you need to know now to be prepared should disaster strike.


“We work closely with our student organizations,” says Ron Wright, director of Emergency Preparedness & Planning at Purdue University in West Lafayette, IN. “We want them to think about weather and other things when planning their events, so we have a Special Event Emergency Planning Checklist ( that we give them. If it’s a major event, we develop an event action plan that is much more detailed, and we will set up a mobile operations center.

“We don’t want to assume that natural disasters won’t happen,” Wright continues, “but assume they might happen. Therefore, how can we prepare for them to keep an event as safe as possible? Our communication to students is, ‘Do have a fun and successful event, as safely as possible.’”

Because of their location on the Gulf of Mexico, emergency preparedness planners at Tulane University in New Orleans spend 30 percent of their energy and time on hurricane planning annually (http:// Norris Yarbrough, CEM, LEM, assistant vice president of Emergency Preparedness and Response, doesn’t see that changing any time soon. And he acknowledges that the university response to hurricanes is deeply integrated with their local and state preparedness and training partners. “For example,” he says, “if city administrators plan to evacuate the city via contraflow, we have to know when that’s going to occur to establish our plans for moving students or bringing in resources.


EXPECT THE UNEXPECTED. Every college and university should have a disaster plan in place that is tailored to its geographical location, from earthquakes to wildfires, hurricanes, tsunamis and more. A majority of disaster potentials are, of course, weatherrelated. Severe weather can happen anytime, in any part of the country. Severe weather can include hazardous conditions produced by thunderstorms, including damaging winds, tornadoes, large hail, flooding and flash flooding, and winter storms associated with freezing rain, sleet, snow and strong winds. The Department of Homeland Security offers guidance on their “Ready” webpage at for a variety of scenarios.x

“In any type of emergency requiring an evacuation,” Yarbrough continues, “you can’t do it in a vacuum. You have to research, plan and work with local and state partners to be sure your plan is integrated with theirs, otherwise you may find yourselves stuck somewhere.” He is a member of Louisiana Emergency Preparedness Association (LEPA), a nonprofit statewide organization of emergency preparedness and response practitioners with the common goal of improving public safety in emergencies. “Members meet regularly with parish leaders to coordinate our responses so we and the universities with which we compete are not defeating each other when a disaster occurs,” he says. “You don’t want to be in a competitive mindset in response to an emergency.”

“Emergency planners can receive training through the National Weather Service (NWS) and, if you’re in Oklahoma, from Oklahoma Mesonet,” offers Lisa Teel, OCEM, Emergency Preparedness manager, at University of Oklahoma, Norman, which is located in the infamous tornado alley. NWS provides weather, water and climate data, forecasts and warnings through 122 weather forecast offices; Oklahoma Mesonet is a network of environmental monitoring stations. “This training,” she adds, “enables you have access to data, resources and support that you otherwise may not have during times of severe weather. Contact your local NWS or Oklahoma Mesonet for information.”

“We have developed an integrated emergency management plan (,” says Purdue’s Wright. “It includes a lot of concepts. We keep the plan current by reviewing it on an annual basis to make sure it is as up to date as possible. It has 14 attachments, such as Emergency Procedures Guide ( and Purdue ALERT Emergency Warning Notification Plan ( Most of the attachments are on our emergency plan website. But sensitive ones, like the bomb threat document, are not public for public safety.”

“Many times parents are left out of the communication loop,” says Tulane’s Yarbrough, “and that can cause an emergency manager some headaches when the phone starts ringing. So, on the front end, you can do a lot to mitigate those headaches by involving both students and parents in training. We meet with them at orientation every year and talk about our emergency response plans so they know what will happen if an event occurs.

“We also talk with both students and parents about our communication plans,” Yarbrough continues. “We have a separate communication plan that parents can opt into. The communication is worded differently for parents; for example, acronyms that they may not know are spelled out.”


“We have an app for students’ smart phones,” says Yarbrough, “that allows us to establish two-way communication in an emergency. It includes a feature where they can text messages that may be pertinent for responding officers straight to the police dispatch unit.”

“We use Rave from Rave Mobile Safety, Framingham, Massachusetts, for text messaging,” says Wright. “The Purdue ALERT Emergency Warning Notification Plan provides the structure on how we use it, who is going to activate it and how to activate it.”

Tulane also uses Rave, and Yarbrough notes that it is helping his team better use social media as a major tool to communicate with students. “We can shoot out messages quickly,” he explains. “The Rave message on texts and emails also goes to Twitter, and our department’s Facebook page and website.”

Tulane administrators have partnered with Alertus, Beltsville, MD, to provide software that sends emergency notifications to networked computers on which the software is installed. Users must acknowledge notifications before using their computers. “The point is to have pop-up boxes on our 20,000 university desktop computers,” says Wright, “telling people what the problem is, where it is and what we want them to do.”

“We also have purchased 32 Alertus beacons,” Wright says. “It’s a box on a wall that alerts via light, LED readout and sound. They’re placed in large areas, such as classrooms accommodating more than 100 persons.”

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“We’ve recently incorporated 185 digital signs across campus,” says Wright. “Not all the digital signs are capable of getting our text messages. As the old signs are retired, the number of signs capable of receiving text messages increases.”


“The importance of fire and smoke dampers is often overlooked,” says Sarah Buckingham, marketing manager at Ruskin (a brand of Johnson Controls) in Kansas City, MO. “Fire and smoke dampers should be used in conjunction with the campus sprinkler system. Sprinkler systems can fail, and having fire and smoke dampers installed in the ductwork allows for the fire and smoke to be contained or isolated to minimize life and property loss.”

“Preparedness is a conversation that begins in early facility design and planning, whether it’s renovation or new construction,” says Yanel de Angel, AIA, LEED-AP BD+C, associate principal in the Boston office of Perkins+Will. “For example, understanding how materials might behave in case of fire or flood informs healthy materials specifications guidelines.”

“Often overlooked,” de Angel observes, “is that being independent from the town or city’s power generation allows campuses to stand on their own during a time of emergency in case power goes down. This is an opportunity for campus facilities to serve as emergency shelters for the surrounding community.”

“Design any future buildings to serve as a FEMA storm shelter,” says Theodore (Todd) R. Jacobs, vice president in the St. Louis office of KAI Design & Build. “FEMA offers grants that can be applied to the cost of the building shell and life safety requirements.”

In 2014, University of Oklahoma administrators conducted an assessment of several buildings identified as possible places to safely shelter large numbers of individuals. “As a result of that assessment,” says Teel, “we have many locations across campus identified as Best Available Refuge Areas. These buildings are left open during times when we expect large or violent tornadoes, even if the rest of campus closes and individuals go home. We staff each with severe weather coordinators, who are trained annually and given supplies that better help them manage large numbers of individuals who may not be familiar with campus.”

“Consider resistive design improvements when designing a building,” offers Jacobs. “Upgrades in the structure will help in sustained wind or earthquake events — going above the minimum code for a stiffer structure.”

“Design building entrances and perimeters to prevent a heavy truck from being used as a weapon,” continues Jacobs. “This can be done through the use of bollards and planters.”

“Administrators, particularly in the Midwest where tornadoes and severe weather are common,” says Jacobs, “should incorporate multiple storm shelters into their master planning, as future FEMA codes may make them a requirement.”

This article originally appeared in the issue of .