Western Carolina University prepared if disaster strikes

September is “National Preparedness Month”, and in honor of the recent trembles felt from the 5.9 magnitude earthquake that rocked Virginia and the East Coast, The Western Carolinian thought it wise to delve into the world of emergency preparedness on the Western Carolina University campus.

WCU Emergency Manager Tammi Hudson sat down with the newspaper to help unweave the intricate web of services provided by the emergency management staff to both old and new students alike.

“If I could give students one recommendation, it would be to sign up for CatTracker,” said Hudson, referring to the system that allows students, faculty, staff and parents to receive a message in case of emergency via e-mail, cell phone or home phone.

While the CatTracker team is making a push for mandatory registration for all incoming students, only a fourth of the 9,000 plus currently enrolled students have registered for the emergency notification system online.

“It gives my team a way to contact students in the event that something happens that could threaten their lives or simply their daily routine,” said Hudson, who is an avid fan of the system.

Hudson believes that bringing awareness to what has already happened can prevent further accidents from occurring.

“There are too many times where things can be prevented if students would be aware of the tools at their disposal,” said Hudson.

The Western Carolina University website offers many tools that students can access to become more aware of the emergency preparedness on campus. Along with CatTracker, an emergency preparedness checklist and a video entitled “Shots Fired On Campus,” are offered. The video is required to be shown to all faculty and staff and will prepare students as well in the event that an active shooter situation arises.

Along with online material, the campus itself has many safeguards against potentially dangerous situations.

Every building on campus has a generator attached to it to run fire alarm systems and other life safety systems and the four “important” buildings (Campus Police Department, Critical Facility, Data Center, and the Steam Building) have entire generator systems that power them.

For students with meal plans, the campus dining hall maintains food supplies that will last the university for nearly a week in the event of power failure, but lacks full generator power.

The emergency preparedness staff also maintains an “All Hazards Emergency Operations Plan” that brings together members of the entire community (Campus EMS and University Police, along with EMS, Fire, and Police from Jackson County) to develop a series of plans that prepare the community for events such as communicable disease outbreak to natural weather disasters, or more commonly, power outages.

All in all, over sixty emergency preparedness plans have been developed and continue to be improved and drilled.

Despite the overwhelming amount of preparedness on campus, the university was not always that prepared.

“Only in the past few years have many campuses moved from updating their preparedness plans every five years to what we have now, which has us drilling our plans and updating them all the time,” said Hudson, adding that the repetition makes it easier to respond when an actual situation presents itself.

Westernis now on a continuous preparedness cycle that involves preparedness, response, recovery, and finally mitigation. This cycle allows the emergency team to develop, assess, and improve their plans and make sure that they are well prepared for any and all situations.

The influx of awareness for preparedness was impacted by events like Hurricane Katrina and the Virginia Tech shootings, both of which had “lasting impacts on the way universities manage their readiness,” stressed Hudson.

Western Carolina University also maintains a plan that involves two teams that are involved in determining whether classes will be delayed or canceled because of an impending storm or natural disaster.

The chancellor and his executive counsel make up the “Policy Group” and then there is the “Emergency Response Team” who reviews weather reports and provide information to the policy group so that they can make the final decision about delaying or cancelling class.

Don’t get your hopes up for a delay or cancellation though.

“It’s rare that we cancel or delay classes because in this region of the state we don’t receive many hurricanes, tornadoes, or terrible winter storms.”

The beginning of spring classes last year were delayed because of a winter storm, but Hudson cannot foresee if the same will happen again this year.

“Every storm is different, each with it’s own makeup and projection. We stay alert, we watch the weather, and we keep the chancellor and his staff informed,” said Hudson.

To find out more information about staying prepared on campus, visit the “Emergency Preparedness” page via the university website to complete the checklist or sign up for CatTracker.