Emergency Preparation – good practices vs. overkill

September 15, 2014

Alison Epperson, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor, Health Ed.
Murray State University

Editor’s Note: This is the first of a two-part series.

In Recreation, we take (or at least we should), the weather seriously; we know, respect and remain diligent in our education and training when it comes to our staff and participants. We have radars, alerts, apps, email, texts, and even social media to keep us up to date at all times of the day and probably have enough experience to apply for a meteorologist position. Safety is our duty! For the most part, campus recreation programs and facilities need to think about tornados, snow/ice storms and of course hurricanes for coastal locations.

In moving to the faculty side of campus, I’ve heard my share of “I walked to school five miles each way barefoot in a snow storm” stories and “I’m not canceling class, it’s not that bad and students are required to be here, or they can take an unexcused absence!”

I’ve been on both sides; as a student commuting two hours to another school in another state for my PhD. In my first semester, a tornado watch was issued for the entire region, which included my town all the way through my school. I emailed my professor and indicated that I was nervous about being on the road for four hours round trip and the three hours of class time. My response was basically, “if you’re not here, you will not be allowed to make up the work…” Reading between the lines, I understood that I was expected to be there. I got in the car and drove, dodging storms until I just had to turn around and come home. I was only excused because there was a confirmed tornado in my path.

This experience really changed how I viewed the expectations of ‘responsibility’ on both ends, both as a student and an employer. Granted, some people will take the forecast of a possible heavy rain and thunderstorm (minus any warning) as an excuse to stay home ‘just to be safe’ as far as they can. However, for the first time in my 16 years of employment on this campus, this past October(!), professors started cancelling late afternoon and night classes at lunchtime due to the ‘high threat of damaging winds and intense storms.” Both the local and national weather services, as well as everyone in between were in a state of panic to the extent of dismissing school early. I too cancelled my class because I have commuters and relating to my own experience, I understood their concern.

Ironically, as I sat at home with my terrified son and dog waiting for the predicted 80 mph winds, downed power lines and trees to hit Murray, it didn’t. It hit all around us, but not our town. We just got a lot of rain! In confusion, I kept watching the radar and the news, hearing reports about damage all around us, but nothing more than flooding for us.

While I’m not going to say that I didn’t enjoy my early night at home and quality time with my son, I’ll admit I felt kind of stupid (as did a majority of our faculty) at canceling class 6 hours early and falling in line with the rest of the community in our effort to ensure student safety.

Unfortunately, it is situations just like these that just reinforce those who feel we are too quick to panic. It’s like the boy who cried wolf.

In relation to your programs and staff (club sports, fitness, recreation centers, intramural staff and officials), it may be time to think about a well-written policy ‘in the event of a weather-related emergency.’ You may need to get down to total nit picking, to establish clear expectations while maintaining the safety and wellbeing of everyone. As most of you already know, it is always better to have something in writing that everyone understands and agrees to as party of their employment.

For example, if you have flag football games planned from 6-10 pm and a tornado watch (not a warning) has been issued for that exact time span, what would you expect of your staff? It would most likely be to your advantage to have a policy that states staff and officials are expected to remain at work until such time (and you may even determine a time or distance) that it appears eminent that dangerous weather is approaching.

Part of your staff training could be that they understand and pre-plan a designated safety location if this happens. This offers protection to you as an employer in that you clearly explained and agreed upon these terms for employment in regards to ‘reasonable expectations.’ You are not forcing someone to wait until the last minute only to be swept up and on their way to OZ, therefore, these types of policies could be a way to prevent being accused of negligence. I would highly recommend you also consult with your University Legal Council before putting anything into place or creating a policy; I’m just suggesting food for thought.

Likewise, if you force someone to come to work when a weather alert has been issued and the storm approaches faster than expected, or a tree or power line goes down and that person is somehow affected, where does the responsibility lie? “Weather” occurs, that’s just the reality, but consider all the legal and ethical ramifications surrounding ‘reasonable expectations.’ If guidelines and expectations are not spelled out and agreed upon, you will find yourself with lots of people ‘erring on the side of caution’ and not coming to work – what do you do then? Do you shut down and cause a stir because your programs and services aren’t in operation…?

During the winter of 2014, our campus was shut down a total of five days – that’s a record for our school. Not all at once, but three consecutive days which I don’t ever remember happening before (and I’ve lived here since 1978). Here’s what got me, we got into this ‘essential vs nonessential staff’ quandary – the grounds crew were working around the clock to remove snow and ice in an effort to increase accessibility, but that didn’t solve the problem for those who couldn’t get out of their own driveway, or travel down the ice packed roadways that were not properly prepped by the city!

Bottom line, the out-of-the-ordinary is unfortunately becoming somewhat of a norm. There’s no question climate change is changing the types and amounts of weather blasting across the country. Make a plan, be prepared!

Part 2 in this series will focus on staff training.


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