Emergency Management embarks on new goals to enhance readiness

October 20, 2011

To Brian Bittner, emergency plans aren't documents that collect dust. They are guides that employees can reference to see what to do, what to expect from others, and how to work together to lessen the impact of an emergency and continue business afterward.

Bittner, who has been the University's emergency management (EM) director since May, is on a quest to help develop emergency management and business continuity plans for every unit at every Penn State location. But instead of drafting ways to respond to an incident, EM's current plans are based on functions and making sure everyone knows what needs to be done to continue operation.

"We've come back toward making sure people have everything logged and planned for their individual functions," Bittner said. "Physical Plant, what can you do if we're faced with a snowstorm, tornado, hurricane or building collapse? Housing and Foods, can you feed this campus if we're unable to get food in?" The University is fortunate to have such a wide range of resources, Bittner added. And it's lucky to have a group of units that works so well together in preparing for emergencies.

Emergency planning isn't what it used to be. It was once just flooding and tornadoes. Then it was air raid drills and fallout shelters. Then terrorism entered the picture. Planning in higher education is a fairly new concept and it includes preparing for potential pandemics, active shooters and the safety of more than 100,000 people at a football game.

"You look at FEMA and PEMA and they're changing their marks," Bittner said. "So, it just doesn't show a tornado anymore. It's all encompassing."

It's new, but Penn State has worked closely with its peer institutions in the Big Ten and the state to learn and share ideas and practices. In August, University Park hosted the annual Big Ten Emergency Management Conference. Almost every university in the conference attended, including some outside the Big Ten.

In 1988, the Centre Region Council of Governments (COG) wanted to develop its own emergency plan. Penn State had one, so the two decided to collaborate on developing a complimentary plan for both.

In 2003, under Senior Vice President for Finance and Business/Treasurer Gary Schultz, both the University and the Centre Region COG created a more robust plan. That plan included raising awareness in the Penn State community and developing emergency plans at all levels. With the restructuring of University Police to University Police and Public Safety, Bittner took the reins and added more bullet points to his team's list of goals.

"We want to bring in someone who can focus specifically on the Commonwealth Campuses," he said. "We want to continue to grow with the Centre Region COG."

Before the unit's restructuring, EM developed an emergency operation center. Bittner called the new state-of-the-art center "monumental." It's a combined center that Penn State and the Centre Region COG worked together to create and the "relationship is unparalleled."

"You can't find anyone else that's doing what we're doing with the center and how our programs are blended," he said. "It's a major accomplishment (and) it's a pretty cool operation."

As a part of its growth, EM wants the community to understand what it does and its capabilities of emergency preparation. Through communication (like PSUTXT, Penn State Live and the Emergency Management website, the office has been able to assist units with emergency plans, from departments as small as five employees to units with thousands.

"It's really exciting. It's really a great opportunity to learn, teach and share," Bittner said. "A lot of people forget recovery. What can we do to bring things back to what we would be doing? We must find a new normal."

Last Updated October 27, 2011