Safety comes first in residence hall community

Hosting 14,000 students for nine months is a challenge Housing, Food Services, and Residence Life take on every school year. Fortunately, there is one plan that assists the on-campus community through any emergency that may occur: The Continuity of Operations Plan. From power outages to pandemics, there are procedures in place designed to keep students safe and the University in operation.

It takes a team. And several Penn State units contribute in keeping Penn State's large on-campus population comfortable and safe. Housing and Residence Life work closely with the Emergency Management Office, University Police, and Campus Dining in running its Continuity of Operations Plan (COOP). The units make sure the University can provide a livable environment for students if an emergency occurred.

"For example, we could lose two residence hall buildings and continue to operate without missing a beat," Housing Director Conal Carr said. "We have procedures set up so that our students will have a place to sleep, eat, and study."

Carr added that if a disaster were to cut off University Park from the rest of the world, Housing would have enough food to feed students and staff for 30 days. If residence halls needed to be shut down or students quarantined, there are 1,000 extra bed spaces for students not counting lounges and lobbies in the commons.

There are four levels of the COOP that are ordered by severity and covers a response process for staff. There is a to-do list for staff for each occurrence. Over the past two years, officials got a first-hand look at several events that occurred on campus, which allowed them to evaluate the effectiveness of their plan using real-life situations.

This semester, two residence halls lost id+ card access between 2:00 and 4:00 a.m. Last school year, there was a bomb scare at Atherton Hall (false alarm), and two years ago there was a major power outage in the residence halls during move-in.

"It's fortunate and unfortunate that we have these situations," Carr said. "The good thing is that we're able to work it out afterward and learn from these low-level emergencies. It keeps people familiar with our plan. The Housing, Food Services, and Residence Life staff respond very well, and that demonstrates that we can handle the larger ones."

Preparation for the H1N1 strain of the flu in 2009 was a great exercise. It was a non-lethal pandemic that allowed Housing to activate its pandemic plan. If a more severe contagious disease were to sweep through campus, Carr is confident Housing staff could respond quickly and appropriately.

Safety kits are located in all residence hall areas, as well as eight other locations throughout the residence hall community. The kits are packed with safety materials from flashlights and AM/FM radios to safety signs and a bullhorn. The kits are checked three times a year.

"It's not like a first aid kit you'd keep in your house," Carr said. "It's specifically for Housing and managing hundreds of people so they can move along to a safe place."

Senior Vice President for Finance & Business/Treasurer Al Horvath realizes the importance of safety and security, especially for the on-campus student population. In 2008, F&B implemented the Creating a Safer and More Secure University Key Initiative, which is a committee of campus administrators who work closely with safety oversee.

"It's vital to have the practices in place to make sure everyone is informed and ready to go if and when something occurs," Horvath said. "You can never be too prepared and I am confident our staff are equipped to react and keep our students safe."

As a part of its focus on safety, the University formed an office that is dedicated to emergency planning. The Emergency Management Office is a part of University Police and consists of three full-time staff members.

"Each of the University's emergency plans fit and live with each other," Carr said. "We meet with student leaders, our residence assistants are trained every fall, and all student leaders and workers are informed of our plan."

Striving for that goal of strong communication, the University developed its PSUTXT service. The program sends news and information to subscribers through text messages. Subscribers can choose the information they want to receive, from emergency notices and campus closings, to weather alerts and campus events.

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Last Updated January 18, 2011