Category 3 Hurricane Sandy, October 22, 2012 – October 31, 2012, produced winds as high as 115 mph (185 km/h) and was responsible for 285 deaths. It was the deadliest and most destructive hurricane of the 2012 Atlantic hurricane season, as well as the second-costliest hurricane in United States history. It was also an eye opening experience for UConn’s University Information Technology Services (UITS) leadership team.
Department of Public Safety’s Emergency Operations Plan
With over 40,000 students, faculty, and professional staff, the University of Connecticut operates like a small city with its own Department of Public Safety providing Police, Fire, and Emergency Medical Services. The department is led by Chief Barbara O’Connor, an exemplar of servant leadership. At any time on campus, there may be as many as 10,000 individuals in resident population. In addition, the Connecticut State Response Framework, developed by the Connecticut Department of Emergency Services and Public Protection (DESPP) and Division of Emergency Management and Homeland Security (DEMHS) in partnership with other CT State Agencies and Non-Governmental Organizations involved in emergency preparedness and response activities, requires the Department of Education to:
Coordinate shelter, mass feeding, non-surgical medical care, and temporary housing at state colleges, regional community colleges, and the University of Connecticut depending upon student populations.
On Thursday, October 25th, the Department of Public Safety invited UITS to participate in a 3pm meeting to detail the planned opening of their Emergency Operations Center (EOC) and direct UConn departments to prepare their own responses accordingly. The key focus areas discussed were human and animal safety and communications. All departments were asked to make certain they provided representation to the EOC for the duration of the operational period.
Public Safety has had a written Emergency Operations Plan in place since around 2009. In the plan, UITS is designated as Emergency Support Function #2 with the following 5 core responsibilities:
- Coordinates between Telecommunications and Network Services and the EOC for all Campus telecommunications, and network services.
- Plans for and establishes alternate and emergency telecommunications and Network and in support of the emergency response operations
- Plans for the emergency installation of Campus telecommunications data networking for critical operations and programs
- Provides technical support to EOC
- Manages the utilization of the Volunteer Ham Radio Services when available
UITS Emergency Operations Plan Genesis
After the initial EOC briefing, UITS held it’s own internal briefing to plan our response. The meeting lasted about an hour and a half and we thought we covered everything necessary. I was designated as the EOC liaison and by default, the incident commander. I only learned later that the decision to have me lead the response was vigorously debated overnight by some members of the UITS leadership team because as a contract employee I had no official authority. The person who protested the most actually wanted to be the designated leader. Thankfully, she relented.
UITS Emergency Operations Plan Response
Since UITS did not have an IT contingency plan, the technical teams rushed to stand-up critical back-up systems to ensure communications would continue throughout the operational period. Fortunately, Hurricane Sandy did not cause any significant outages on campus and IT escaped without incident. There were power outages to some of the dorms and some dorm windows were blown out in the outlying areas. A construction containment fence was blown over on the main campus and we had a lot debris and tree branches. The most significant incident occurred near the campus in the town of Mansfield for which the UConn Department of Public Safety provides mutual aid response. An eighty-year old woman died as she tried to leave her home for safe shelter. As she was walking down her driveway, a large tree blew over on top of her killing her instantly.
Emergency Operations Plan After Action Report
When the operational period ended, I conducted an after action debrief. We documented our incident response, what we did well, and what we need to improve. The experience led me to develop the IT department’s Emergency Operation Plan (EOP). We had an opportunity to exercise the Emergency Operations Plan for the Blizzard of 2013. We were informed that the EOC was opening for weather monitoring purposes. We treated the incident as one requiring an emergency response and invoked the Emergency Operations Plan. We held our planning session using the Emergency Operations Plan checklists as our guide. Our planning session was complete in 25 minutes, down from the 1 1/2 hours that was required for Hurricane Sandy.
Want to laugh? Here’s something funny that happened during the Hurricane Sandy operational period. The UConn police department monitors Twitter feeds with Hootsuite. They learn about incidents on campus more rapidly from Twitter than from people calling 911 or using the campus emergency Blue Phone system. As we were watching the Twitter feeds, one student tweeted that he was “In the woods sitting near a tree hiding from the cops.” Now if you were a police officer and saw that tweet, what would you do? The officer in charge of the EOC drilled down on the tweet to view the student’s account. It was clear from the earlier tweets that the student was talking about going into the woods on campus to smoke an illegal substance. The student also had his phone’s location services turned on. The officer simply had to click on the tweet’s location and a map opened showing the woods and the tree the student was sitting near. So much for hiding from the cops!
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