Sept. 5, 2008

Simulated crisis tests campus preparedness

Hurricane Gustav hit the Gulf Coast this week with a solid punch, but it did not take a high toll in lives lost as Katrina did three years ago. This was not sheer luck. It was the result of much planning by multiple agencies in several states, including the evacuation of New Orleans, and of a hard look at lessons learned during Katrina's tragic aftermath.

One of those lessons was this: Preparation saves lives.

In that same spirit, emergency management officials at Cornell hosted a tabletop exercise Aug. 20 that brought together representatives from numerous local, regional and state agencies to assess readiness for one of the worst possible incidents, a shooting and hostage-taking scenario on campus.

"This was part of our ongoing effort to ensure that the campus is ready to respond immediately and effectively to any type of emergency," said Richard McDaniel, Cornell vice president for risk management and public safety.

Some 50 planners took part in the campus exercise. The program was developed and organized by Cornell's Office of Emergency Planning and Recovery, working in conjunction with Cornell University Police and the Tompkins County Emergency Management Committee. It was based on recent exercises sponsored by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, the State of Ohio Homeland Security Grant Exercise Program and Cornell.

Attending the daylong event were representatives from the Ithaca Fire Department, Ithaca Police Department, Tompkins County Department of Emergency Response and Sheriff's Department, the New York State Emergency Management Office, Tompkins County Public Information, the New York State Police, Bangs Ambulance and Cayuga Medical Center.

Members of the Cornell Emergency Management Committee (CEMC), which is responsible for providing central coordination in preparing for, responding to and recovering from emergencies, also participated. Departments represented on the CEMC are Cornell Police, Environmental Health and Safety, Campus Life, Cornell Information Technologies, Facilities Services, Gannett Health Services, Human Resources, Risk Management and Public Safety, Supply Management, Transportation and Mail Services and University Communications.

"The exercise was a great opportunity for the CEMC members to work with our local response agencies and to utilize their expertise and training in incident command, which is the standard for emergency response throughout the country," said Peggy Matta, director of Cornell's Office of Emergency Planning and Recovery. "We're grateful for the support we've received from the local agencies that we rely on for emergency response and for backup and support during emergencies."

Matta added that Cornell and the response agencies have agreed to conduct continuous interagency exercises to ensure maximum preparedness.