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Director for Facilities Management, Engineering, Planning & Construction The University of Texas at Dallas Richardson, Texas
William M. (Bill) Elvey, P.E.
You were assistant vice president for facilities at Virginia Tech when the campus shootings took place in April 2007. What type of emergency-management plan did your department have in place, and how did that event pose challenges to that plan?
We had an emergency-response plan in place for quite a while. The type of response was based on the significance assigned to the event – Level 1, Level 2, Level 3. The emergency-response plan considered various scenarios, including natural disasters, hazardous chemical spills, and pandemic flu. We updated the plan at least once a year, and we conducted tabletop exercises on a periodic basis.
What role did your department play when the incident occurred? What was your role?
Facilities management played a significant role in responding to the tragic events of April 16, 2007. Our initial role was to directly support the needs and requests of the first responders, which included the Virginia Tech Police Department, other law enforcement, and various agencies. One of the first tasks was setting up a memorial service in our basketball arena the following evening. The event was televised nationally, and the governor of Virginia and President Bush both attended. Under normal circumstances, preparing for an event like this would take several days, but facilities management personnel completed the assignment in less than one day.
We arranged for special transportation needs and tried to maintain control of campus roads, parking lots and grounds. Our department managed the delays in ongoing university construction projects caused by periodic closures and reduced access to project sites. Facilities management provided customized mapping and graphics to support the police investigation. The department also participated in a working group that developed a transition plan to allow the university to reopen Norris Hall – where the majority of the shootings took place.
Facilities management assisted with the moving needs associated with the temporary closure of Norris Hall. The department assisted the university in creating additional classrooms across campus due to the permanent loss of the Norris Hall classrooms. We also helped coordinate the large amount of spontaneous memorials that appeared across campus.
I initially led the university’s Emergency Response Resource Group, a multi-departmental, cross-campus organization that met daily to address the needs of the university’s response to the event. I reported to the policy group of executives who were dealing with the crisis at the highest level within the university.
Over the summer, facilities management completed a number of renovation projects to separate mailrooms in residence halls to limit students’ access in buildings where they did not reside. We established schedule-driven goals directly related to restoring a sense of normalcy to the campus.
For example, our first goal was to do everything necessary to allow the university to resume classes on Monday of the following week. The next goal was to do everything necessary to allow the university to complete the spring semester and hold commencement. Then we focused on getting the campus ready for summer classes and the fall semester.
In the months after the shootings, what types of activities was your department involved in to help prepare the campus facilities and occupants for future emergencies?
No one could have prepared facilities management for the types of activities required to respond to the tragedy, both in the short term and long term. For example, managers do not have a handbook or guide to refer to when dealing with restoration of facilities damaged by the kind of events that transpired at Virginia Tech. We had to decontaminate and fully restore the damaged buildings after the police completed their investigations.
But the question was how to get this work done in an expeditious, professional, and cost-effective way. Fortunately, we found a number of business entities across the country that specialize in responding to such situations. But as one can imagine, navigating through the legal complexities involved in negotiating with contractors for this type of work was difficult and time-consuming.
While addressing the facilities-based challenges related to the shootings, our department also eliminated asbestos and lead-paint-based materials from the affected residence hall and classroom building. Facilities management restored the rest of Norris Hall, which we managed to complete almost a month ahead of schedule. We constructed a temporary memorial for the victims that we completed in time for fall classes. We also conducted a complete inventory of all university building hardware and immediately developed a phased plan and schedule for upgrades we considered appropriate in the wake of the tragedy. Finally, facilities management participated in a number of post-incident internal reviews conducted by the university.
What are some of your activities at The University of Texas at Dallas related to emergency management? How are you applying lessons from Virginia Tech to your current position?
Facilities management’s role here at The University of Texas at Dallas is similar to the role we played at Virginia Tech, due to overall similarities in the university’s organizational structure. For example, facilities management falls under a vice president for business affairs, as does the police department and the environmental, health and safety department.
But one big difference is we have a full-time emergency management coordinator in the office of emergency management. In my short time here, we already have conducted a tabletop exercise in conjunction with The University of Texas system. The university already has a mass communications emergency system – e-mail, text messaging, etc. – in place and is considering the specification of an outside siren-warning system, which we already have for tornadoes.
One obvious lesson learned from Virginia Tech, is facilities management organizations never should become complacent and think, “It never can happen here.” If it can happen at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Va., it can happen anywhere.
What advice would you give managers developing an emergency-preparedness plan for their organizations and departments?
To be valid, an emergency-management plan must be current and must consider all threats, no matter the perceived risks. Organizations must rehearse and practice the implementation of the plan as often as possible. These drills require full participation, cooperation, and support from university executives, including the academic side of the institution and the university president. Post-incident communication and role-playing also require constant focus and attention, due to turnover and vacancy.
Finally, having alternate emergency contacts designated in advance can prove beneficial because primary contacts and representatives might not always be available when an incident occurs.