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November 9, 2001

U of C bolsters plans for crisis management

In the aftermath of the September 11 attacks, the University has modified its Emergency Management Plan, a set of guidelines which will, in the event of a crisis, coordinate the administration's response.

The plan, created by Patricia Woodworth, the University's vice president and chief financial officer, has been in development for the last 18 months, and will be called into action when the University police or safety office reports emergencies ranging from long-term power outages to acts of war.

"Primarily we had worked previously off of documents that were more geared to . . . smaller emergencies that would cross departmental lines," Woodworth said. "But I think that all of us after September 11 have a much better appreciation of the kind of emergencies we can be confronted with."

The plan, which is dated October 29, provides for an emergency director, emergency policy group, and emergency management group to handle unexpected events.

Woodworth is currently the emergency director, who activates the plan in the case of a Category Two or a more severe Category Three emergency. The plan defines such emergencies as "an unplanned event that (a) significantly disrupts normal operations or poses a serious threat to persons or property, (b) cannot be managed by routine response and (c) requires a quick and coordinated response across multiple departments or divisions."

Examples of Category Two events include major fires, extended electrical outages, and severe snowstorms. Events like tornadoes, large civil disturbances, and acts of war are considered Category Three events. Both types, once they are reported to the University Police or safety office, will activate the plan.

"What we've tried to do is put in place a mechanism that can be used really no matter what the emergency is," Woodworth said. "In talking to my peers at other institutions who have worked on these [sorts of] plans, the problem is that you're always rewriting the plan to deal with the last emergency, but you never know what you're going to face." According to Woodworth, the plan was originally designed to deal with events like severe snowstorms and power failures, but significant changes were made during the reevaluation after September 11.

"We paid more attention in the revised plan to communication issues," Woodworth said. The plan calls for the emergency director to meet with an emergency policy group and emergency management group at a designated emergency operations center. The center, which is to serve as the University's war-room during an emergency, will be located in the fifth floor conference room of the Administration Building, unless that room is unavailable.

The emergency policy group, consisting of high-ranking University officials like the president, provost, and various vice presidents, designs the overall approach to handling an emergency, designating priorities and authorizing evacuations and shutdowns.

The plan says that, in the event of an emergency, the first priority will be given to the safety of students, faculty, staff and affected community residents. The second priority is the "mitigation of damage, including the safety and protection of research animals." The "recovery and restoration of academic and research operations" is the third and last priority discussed in the plan.

The emergency management group handles the University's response by assembling resources and coordinating the response with city authorities. They also monitor the situation and the effectiveness of their response until the director determines that the emergency is over. The management group members include representatives from facilities services, Networking Services and Information Technology, the dean of student services, the University Police, and housing and dining services.

The direct, on-location response will be provided by the emergency site operations group, made up of an incident commander from University Police or the safety office and representatives of facilities services, the appropriate division or department, and building manager.

"This is really just the first part of a process of putting emergency plans in place throughout the University," Woodworth said. "There are many different units within the University that are currently working on their own plans. We're all working as fast as we can to put all these plans in place. In many places there are already plans, but as a result of September 11, we're taking another look at them." For example, Dean of Students in the University Margo Marshak is developing an emergency plan relating to undergraduate students and their housing needs.

This plan has taken on greater significance since, in the aftermath of September 11, temporary housing had to be found for students at New York University, where Marshak worked until this year.

"We might not have considered in the past that we…[would be] suddenly in a situation where there were 2,000 that needed to be housed elsewhere," Woodworth said.

The Emergency Management Plan will be accessible from the University's Web site, www.uchicago.edu, beginning next week. "This is an ongoing process," Woodworth said. "I urge people who have an interest to check the Web site periodically for updates."