Staying Informed: Are UD Students Prepared for a Disaster?

Nikki Testa
Photo by Nikki Testa
University of Delaware students crossing East Delaware Avenue. Newark, Delaware. 2018

Strands of yellow police tape tied to sign posts crisscrossed East Delaware Avenue on a brisk Monday morning in April. Flashing lights pulsed from staged emergency vehicles used to block intersections. As I drove into Newark for class, I knew which streets to avoid from a UD alert I received on my cell phone. Though, this was the only information contained within the alert message. Once on foot and closer to the action, I gawked down East Delaware Ave. as any skilled rubbernecker would, hoping to uncover the root of this disturbance.

I couldn’t help but overhear a couple of students talking about the alert when I eventually entered the classroom. Feelings that the alerts, in general, were uninformative and written in a way that could be misinterpreted were openly expressed. This piqued my interest since the alert I had received only mentioned road closures. If it hadn’t been for a text from my mom, who received an alert through the city of Newark, I wouldn’t have known about the suspicious package at all. Also, as I later discovered, a second UD alert was disseminated advising of the nature of the incident.

As a Firefighter and EMT, I was not overly concerned because I would have been notified by other means had the event been significant. However, as a student focused on emergency and environmental management, a flood of questions entered my mind. Why hadn’t I received the second UD alert? How many others were in the same boat as me? What if instead the situation had been a bomb threat or an active shooter? Is UD prepared to handle such events? Do students know what to do during a disaster? I posed these questions to a couple of my classmates sitting nearby. Their uncertain replies prompted me to take a closer look.

Safety Isn’t Sexy

With an increased likelihood of experiencing hazards and disasters in the past 10 to 15 years, coupled with the University of Delaware achieving a record high enrollment, emergency preparedness on university and college campuses is a legitimate concern. At any given time, throngs of students will be mustered in classrooms, clustered four plus deep at crosswalks, and gathered at the multitude of shops and eateries around campus. If a disaster were to occur, the potential number of UD students directly impacted would be significant.

Later identified gaps in preparedness after the Virginia Tech tragedy impelled institutions of higher education to consider more comprehensive safety plans and viable crisis management programs. This triggered me to investigate the university’s plans by looking to UD’s Office of Campus & Public Safety’s website.

Nestled within much of the safety advice are a myriad of hyperlinks which will direct you to a plethora of resources. Most of the content appeared to me to be common sense type reference, though would take any newcomer on an ambitious journey to safety enlightenment. Other than suggesting those who are not familiar to examine the guidance offered, at minimum I highly recommend checking out UD Police Department’s well-made Active Shooter video. Overall, if you can add just one new tip to your personal safety repertoire, I’d consider this a win.

The real emergency preparedness meat and potatoes came when I clicked on ‘ UD Emergency Plans’. I should caution you now for the information is hearty and geared more towards how UD’s administration is to operate during emergencies. Though I have an interest in the subject, I grew bored after page twenty-six of the 177 page ‘UD Emergency Operations Plan’, as I suspect any undergrad would.

Even though I work in the field, I, too, had fallen victim to one common hindrance most Emergency Managers (EM’s) face. Despite their efforts to ensure carefully considered plans are in place, it is challenging to get people to contemplate preparing for disasters until it is truly needed.

We joke in emergency management that the reason is because safety isn’t sexy. Emergency preparedness in general is an afterthought for most busy, working adults, let alone 20-something undergrads with five papers and a presentation due by Tuesday. No offense “career of my choice”, but this author has a million other things to organize before I set off to hoarding gallons of water and peanut butter in my basement.

Risk Communication

Though, the point I am trying to make goes much deeper than simply ensuring we have the recommended 72-hours’ worth of supplies on hand. Specific disaster research reveals that cultivating a deeper sense of executing and understanding these plans among campus communities may be missing.

Relevant literature suggests initiatives to better engage educational institutions in preparing for disasters, yet again is predominately geared towards administrators. I suggest that the term campus communities not only comprise those responsible for the students’ well-being, but must include the students as well. If the students are not prepared to receive, understand or execute the plans, then even the best plans are utterly worthless.

Communications are a vital piece of the emergency planning pie. Thinking back to my previous observations regarding the alert pertaining to the suspicious package, the issue of adequate communication especially stands out.

Risk communications such as warning messages are dependent on understanding how best to reach an at-risk population (in this case, UD’s student body) and how best to effectively transmit information. Therefore, it is imperative for EM’s to understand the communication patterns of UD students.

I attempted to begin to uncover these patterns through a survey I conducted in one of my sociology classes. Though the survey sample was modest, I could identify several clear trends. All twenty-four respondents received UD alerts. The majority received the alert through text and/or email. Nearly 88% felt the alerts were informative with 42% suggesting improvements of sooner initial alerts, more frequent updates, and more detailed messaging.

I recognize that communicating quickly among students, faculty, and administration, and maintaining students’ sense of safety is a daunting task for EM’s, but to only receive a warning of road closures for a suspicious package threat could potentially leave the door open for contrary student response. How is the student body to respond quickly to a threat, if the threat isn’t thoroughly conveyed in an alert message or clear enough to be suitably understood?

Furthermore, consideration must be made for how students’ process warnings into action. Social science researchers Perry and Lindell offer the Protective Action Decision Model, which suggests that people typically need additional information regarding certainty, severity, and immediacy of a threat. Remember the uncertain replies I received from fellow classmates regarding what they would do in the event of an emergency? I suspect, they would first seek more information. Who wants to be THAT guy who makes a fool of himself by reacting overly dramatic?

Of the sample surveyed most preferred UD alerts as the platform to find out more information regarding an ongoing or imminent disaster at UD. And, UD Police Department was the top and most trusted source from which to obtain more information.

Emergency warnings are well documented to be the most effective when frequently repeated, confirmatory in character and perceived by the public as credible. Though the outcome of the suspicious package incident was benign, I suspect that had the threat been more impactful, the student body would have received more useful information in a consistent and timely manner allowing for proper response.

With these results, perhaps my argument is moot. A larger survey should be conducted to obtain a more definitive conclusion.

Fortunately, UD has not been real word tested on the scale as was experienced by Virginia Tech. Yet, 71% of respondents reported not having watched an active shooter training video in the past year. This is concerning.

Though emergency alerts have their value they should not be relied upon as the sole method for campus safety. Involving students in scenario-based training for emergency response may be beneficial. Survival in a disaster event often depends on immediate action. Without time to obtain additional information, students’ response will be reactionary and potentially not within the objectives established in an emergency plan.

Nikki Testa, a Sociology Major focusing on Emergency and Environmental Management, has spent the past 17 years working as a Firefighter and EMT throughout New Castle County, Delaware and Southern Chester County, Pennsylvania; as well as deploying out west each summer as a Wildland Firefighter. Testa currently works for the Delaware Emergency Management Agency as the Citizen Corps Program Coordinator.

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