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Beyond 9-1-1: ISU working to be ready for emergencies

EOC video wall

The Emergency Operations Center's video wall can display feeds from multiple sources.

Cost, quality and safety. For most families, college choice comes down to these three areas of concern.

Even after deciding which academic program fits best and a budget to cover expenses is in place, worry about protection for a son or daughter settling into the campus community inevitably continues.

Eric Hodges understands the emotion and knows how to curb such anxiety: build a culture of preparedness. That’s exactly what he has helped accomplish at Illinois State in his role as emergency manager through Environmental Health and Safety (EHS).

“We need for everybody in the University community to feel they are prepared to respond to an emergency. The goal is to be ‘all-hazards’ prepared,” said Hodges, explaining the term means being ready for incidents whether caused by human action, created through nature or connected to technology.

Despite frequent headlines that convey the trauma of violent shootings, Hodges assures that is the least likely emergency scenario for the campus. “Weather damage is the most frequent,” he said, “and one of the more emerging threats is cyber crime.”

Knowing the possibilities are broad and beyond prediction, Hodges purposefully narrows his focus to issues of mitigation, preparedness, response and recovery—with the emphasis on preparedness. The key is to have a trained team in place to execute a plan. At Illinois State, the blueprint has evolved over several years to now include nearly 100 people with diverse expertise and experience from across the University.

Eric Hodges inside EOC

Eric Hodges inside Illinois State’s new Emergency Operations Center (EOC).

Long before Hodges assumed his role in 2013, others within EHS were addressing emergency management issues. The work began in 1997 under Steve Eddington. A retired Marine, he had the foresight to start planning before federal mandates or intense national exposure revealed the need for heightened campus security.

Assistant Director Don Kunde ’93, who was EHS staff at that time as well, remembers the first Incident Management Plan was primarily a notice to units that would be called upon in an emergency and contact information for needed responders. While the work was done in partnership with the University Police Department, there were no drills.

“We had a pager tree that became a phone tree. That was our initial emergency alert system,” Kunde recalled, noting the entire effort has been a progression over many years.

Headway continued under current EHS Director J.C. Crabill, who succeeded Eddington in 2005. With a degree in safety and work experience in nuclear power plants, Crabill was pleased to see an initial plan in place.

“I had a great respect for what had been done. One of my top concerns was that it still wasn’t what it needed to be,” Crabill said. He knew the next step was to add breadth, detail and training.

Campus leadership realized the need to intensify the work as well, especially following the Virginia Tech attack in 2007 and a shooting at Northern Illinois University in 2008. Both events heightened awareness of campus vulnerability.

Former EHS Safety Officer Dan Hite joined Crabill and Kunde as the planning advanced. They tackled questions of what teams were needed, who should be on them, how to implement the various teams, where team members would gather and how the campus can best partner with external agencies. The trio worked closely with local emergency response officials to participate in drills within the community before initiating ones specific to campus, including a Laboratory School intruder scenario.

A more sophisticated campus emergency alert system using cell phones and landlines for notification was in place through the police department by 2009. Mock exercises were completed, including an active shooter drill at Dunn-Barton and Walker residence halls before their demolition. Such training always exposed areas where more planning was needed.

One issue that quickly emerged was the question of how to manage the flow of communications. Katy (Young) Killian ’92, M.S. ’14, started tackling that challenge in mid-2000. It came to Killian through her position overseeing marketing and communication for Student Affairs as an assistant to the vice president. She focused on creating a crisis communication group to handle emergency messaging.

“We have a real sense of responsibility to communicate the truth and provide direction to replace rumor” that is inevitable as an emergency unfolds, said Killian, who is a dual ISU communication graduate.

group briefing

Eric Hodges providing an overview to participants of a campus exercise in 2015.

Beyond assembling campus experts to craft messages for the University’s Web site as an event unfolds, ideas spread to include a call center for managing parent inquiries. How to handle social media and inevitable news coverage became their own areas of concern. The University’s Media Relations staff became involved and a social media team was created.

As duties spread and more staff were included, it became clear to Crabill, Kunde and Hite that orchestrating campus emergency preparedness was beyond the scope of their part-time efforts. A full-time position was created and filled by Hodges, who transitioned from his campus information technology position in Enterprise Systems Support to his current role.

While Hodges holds an undergraduate degree in computer science, emergency management is his passion. His volunteer involvement—from the Illinois Terrorism Task Force to the Illinois Incident Management Team and the McLean County Emergency Management Agency—totals more than a thousand hours annually.

The work complements knowledge Hodges gained by completing a master’s in emergency and disaster management through the American Public University System. He is one of fewer than 1,500 globally to have gained certification through the International Association of Emergency Managers.

Hodges has volunteered in numerous community, county and state emergency roles for years, handling everything from administrative tasks to rescue work. Summoned to help at the national level following Superstorm Sandy and Hurricane Katrina, he draws on years of preparation to fulfill his charge of assessing and maturing the University’s emergency management plan.

“I have been in some of the biggest disasters in the country and have not felt overwhelmed. Span of control is the crucial key,” Hodges said, explaining the need to have manpower that grows as an incident expands.

He consequently has put in place at ISU an incident management team that consists of three response levels. The first level includes Hodges’ position, ISU police, an EHS representative and the Office of Media Relations. The second level adds an additional person from EHS, a Campus Communication Team member, and leadership representatives from the Office of the Provost, Student Affairs, and Finance and Planning.

“Level three means we bring in anybody needed,” Hodges said, noting the toughest part of his job is often deciding when to activate and at what level. The police department is always responsible for actually sending out alerts, which now come across by text, landline, email, and on visual campus signage.

Hodges has created a grid that details who is involved and to what degree for specific emergencies that range from a lost person to storm warnings, a hazardous material incident, unexpected loss of a building, and of course an act of violence. There are three individuals trained for each position to account for times when a person is unavailable and to have replacements should an incident extend into long hours or even days.

Once activated, team members gather at the campus Emergency Operations Center (see sidebar), which Hodges designed so all involved have the same real-time intelligence to make decisions. Those who can’t physically enter the room use the web-based software Virtual Emergency Operations Center (Veoci) to participate.

Briefings set objectives and make clear areas of responsibility. When a problem is identified, it is assigned to the appropriate group and solutions are brainstormed. They are then shared at the next briefing, along with updates as to what else needs to be resolved.

“We don’t do anything tactical in the Emergency Operations Center (EOC). It’s only strategic,” Hodges said, adding that his role is to stay a few steps ahead of the group by anticipating the next area of action.

He has confidence in this team approach because training is regularly scheduled. The level-one group meets in the EOC during football games, concerts, commencement and Homecoming. Every call for aid is tracked, from a health emergency to a fire from a tailgater’s grill. The result is a familiarity with the room and a working bond between members.

Hodges also orchestrates large-scale training events, with the most recent completed in March. The decommissioned south campus residence halls were the scene of an active shooter exercise that involved more than 200 community and university personnel. Students volunteered to serve as mock victims in the exercise, which Hodges described as a unique opportunity to prepare for a situation that hopefully never occurs.

“The value of a drill is muscle memory,” he said, which is crucial because nearly all included on the incident management team are ISU employees who complete full-time duties across campus in roles unrelated to emergency planning.

“We rely on a group of volunteers who are highly dedicated to take this on outside their normal job responsibilities. They make themselves available at all hours of the day and night,” Killian said. Their reward comes in knowing they are part of an extensive safety shield for the campus community that sets ISU apart from many peer institutions.

“We have a maturity in our response team that is as strong as it can be, and we will continue to mature. Our institution is in a great spot but the work must go on, in part because our student population continually turns over,” said Hodges, who acknowledges without complaint that his job is never done.

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