How to Prepare Yourself for the Worst-Case Scenario
Jay Anhorn, Drexel University
Fraternity/sorority professionals could probably create their own Web site full of the craziest and scariest situations in which college students find themselves daily. It could include video footage of late night social events, downloadable videos of chapter meetings, podcasts of meetings with great student leaders (and not-so-great student leaders), blogs written during judicial hearing deliberations, and pictures of new member education, intake, and recruitment activities. It would be one of the most popular sites out there. There could be a fee for advertising space throughout the site, and all proceeds could be used to subsidize fraternity/sorority professional salaries. Hooray!
Welcome back to reality. The sad thing is a lot of this information is already out there and available to the public. Even worse is that fraternity/sorority professionals and volunteers are the people who are responsible for managing these situations every day. Makes that advertising fee sound enticing, right?
No matter what level of training you have, how long you have been in the field, or how many situations you have managed, can anyone really say they are mentally and physically prepared for the worst-case scenario? Let us turn to the people who have dealt with some of the most disastrous and horrific events of our time: the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). With a mission to prepare for, protect against, respond to, recover from, and mitigate all hazards (FEMA, n.d.), FEMA seems to be the gold standard in crisis management. It may seem extreme to take fraternity and sorority life to the level of a national crisis, or is it?
Put yourself in a situation where you are awakened in the middle of the night. You are tired, disoriented, groggy, a bit confused, and are not quite sure if you heard the person on the other end of the line say “burning” or “burying.” Think about how you might feel at that moment as you spring out of bed. Where is your pen? Who are you supposed to call next? How do you form your sentences so as not to cause more panic?
While colleges and universities have worked diligently to institute crisis management plans to address hurricane, tornado, and fire preparedness, and over the last few years, the threat of bird flu and H1N1, what really matters is how the plan actually works when you need it most.
FEMA presents guiding principles that prepare those involved in national disasters to approach situations with a unified response (FEMA, 2009). They have established a comprehensive, national, all-hazards approach to domestic incident response from which our profession can draw some interesting parallels.
1. Identify possible emergencies based on the history of your community or organization and what resources are needed. Equip yourself with the knowledge of your community. What are your students likely to do in certain scenarios? Do they know when a situation is serious, or are they immune to hazards caused by numerous pranks and “false alarms,” “drills,” or simulations? Those of us who have worked with residential living communities have witnessed the student who was in the shower or napping during a fire drill and refused to run outside without his/her cell phone or purse. It is important to have real discussions with students, not just your student leaders, about what they would do in an emergency to inform your reality.
2. Calculate and assess your risks. Communities need to identify the characteristics and potential consequences of hazards. It is important to understand the degree to which a community can be affected by specific hazards and the impacts on important community assets. What is likely to happen when tragedy strikes your campus? Will a seemingly small incident wreak havoc on your entire student, faculty, and staff population? Will your phone lines ring off the hook with concerned parents and alumni? Will news reporters be banging down your door? Unfortunately, these occurrences are not far from the truth.
We need to determine who and what is at stake. Make a list of the types of students on your campus or in your organization and their risky behaviors. Rank the risk factors of these groups and their common behaviors. Put it in a spreadsheet. Engaging in this process helps you understand the situations you have managed, and reflect on those with which you are less familiar or comfortable. Ask yourself, or better yet, your students, “What if these behaviors resulted in a tragedy?” The scenarios used for the Order of Omega Case Study Competition at the AFA Annual Meeting are not fabricated. They are based on real events.
3. Develop a response plan (for you and your students). Armed with an understanding of the risks posed by crises, institutions and organizations need to prioritize their top risks and then look at possible ways to diminish the effects or risks gone wrong. The result is a response plan and strategy for implementation.
Invite key advisors, students and, more importantly, parents into the discussion of your response plan. Who better to inform the response plan development process than the very people who have vested interest in the health and safety of students? How would they like to see students protected? Despite the age-old joke about living in the campus bubble, that bubble is a thin barrier to the outside world. Campuses are a societal microcosm and are subject to the same hazards and risks.
4. Implement and monitor plan progress. A response plan can be brought to life in a variety of ways, ranging from implementing a campaign for healthy behaviors or safety precautions, to minor changes in day-to-day organizational operations. To ensure the success of an ongoing program, it is critical that the plan remains relevant, by conducting periodic evaluations and revising as needed. The group who created the plan should be the same one to revisit it every two years (just like chapter or council bylaws).
In many cases the fraternity/sorority advisor or organization staff member will not be the one to create a master response plan. However, you can use the principles discussed in this article as a model for how you personally wire yourself to respond to a crisis. The primary element of a response plan is simple: involve those people who would be the most affected in the crisis. All too often the best laid plans are those developed after a major tragedy or disaster, so be proactive.