Risk and Crisis Management

April 17, 2013

A Recreation Perspective

Kristen Brosius, M.Ed.
Mary Kate McMahon, M.Ed
Springfield College

June 1, 2011 started like any other late spring day in New England. While a majority of students on the Springfield College campus had gone home for the summer, the recreation facility was bubbling with activity, including summer camps, children’s swim lessons, recreational exercising, and group exercise classes. As the afternoon approached, the sky began to look grey and ominous. Because a tornado is such a rare occurrence in western Massachusetts, few took the tornado warning seriously and continued about their day. Against all odds, a funnel cloud touched down near campus at 4:23 p.m. Instantly, the student and professional campus recreation staff became responsible for the safety of over one hundred visiting patrons.

In any campus recreation setting, planning for a disaster or crisis is an essential component of a comprehensive risk and crisis management plan. The crisis management cycle described by Dunkel, Rollo, and Zdziarski (2007) details the stages: planning, prevention, response, recovery and learning. While many of these steps are tackled on an institutional level, a campus recreation department should have its own highly organized emergency action plan.
The planning stage begins with a broad stroke from the institution, and is focused within the department. A crisis management team should be developed for the recreational facility, and a concrete crisis management plan should be created and documented. Members of the departmental team could include: the director of campus recreation, the facility operations manager, and selected student building supervisors. In a facility shared with academics, athletics or other departments, representatives from each should be involved to maintain a collaborative plan and allow for a smooth activation when necessary. The team would create a facility-specific emergency response protocol.

A crisis audit is part of the prevention stage of the cycle. The audit identifies types of crisis, the probability of occurrence, and the potential impact on the campus (Dunkel et al, 2007). Even if a crisis is deemed low risk (i.e. tornado in New England, blizzard in Florida, etc.), a plan should also be created and used during staff training, workshops, and in-services. Experiential learning is an important way to ensure the staff is ready to act in the event of an emergency. Having staff training specifically designed for emergency response will allow staff, in the time of crisis, to make quick and effective decisions.

Such drills allowed the campus recreation staff at Springfield College to respond quickly as the June 1 tornado tore through the center of campus. Patrons were escorted to the lowest level of the facility, as far away from windows as possible. The staff took head counts, calmed patrons, and alerted campus safety officers of their whereabouts. More than 100 patrons — over half of them children — were hysterical, but the student and professional staff remained calm, thanks to their extensive training and knowledge of the crisis management plan. With subsequent tornado warnings and storms in the forecast, patrons and staff were hunkered down for more than four hours. Around 9 p.m., when conditions had improved, the unharmed patrons left the building.

In the response stage, the campus recreation staff is able to put their training and knowledge to the test by acting in real-time. A reliable crisis management plan will prove its effectiveness only during a moment of crisis.

In recovery efforts, members of the professional staff reach out to the student staff who responded to the emergency, providing support and educating them on other resources available on campus (i.e. counseling center). Professionals should also ensure that daily business operations resume as soon as possible in order to maintain a sense of normalcy.

The learning stage is a chance for the crisis management team to focus on evaluating and improving their current plan. During a debriefing meeting with campus recreation staff who responded, the team endeavors to discover the successes and failures of the crisis management plan, and adjusts and modifies the plan as needed. The cycle starts over.

As a result of the June 1 tornado, Springfield College sustained extensive property damage, dramatically altering the campus landscape. Residence halls were severely damaged, resulting in a fast track renovation in order to have the buildings ready for students returning in September.

Within a six-month period following the tornado, Springfield College also experienced a microburst, Hurricane Irene, two student deaths, and a devastating winter storm. The completion of each stage within the crisis management cycle allowed for an effective plan, response, and recovery in these emergencies. Having a specific plan within a campus recreation department allows the department to act independently in the event of a crisis that directly affects its facility.

N.W. Dunkel, J.M. Rollo, & E.L. Zdziarski (2007). Campus Crisis Management: A Comprehensive Guide to Planning, Prevention, Response, and Recovery.

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