College prepares for natural disasters with emergency management team

Person walking in front of howard residence hall during snowstorm
Leo Bernstein Newman / The Mossy Log

In September 2021, Lewis & Clark hired Bill Curtis as director of emergency management, a position that is rare in colleges of this size. 

LC hired its first ever emergency manager in 2018. During his time, Curtis has been busy between the cyberattack and the rise in winter storms. His job involves preparing infrastructure for situations like forest fires, earthquakes, other natural disasters, active shooters, potential protests and civil unrest. Curtis said he is pleased with the way LC is preparing for these crises, which makes the college stand out from similarly sized institutions.

“(The college has) been very consistent about making sure that we have the right plans in place, that we are training an emergency management team to meet the institution’s needs and increasing the personal preparedness as a student, faculty staff,” Curtis said. “… It’s a very consistent approach, and an incredible commitment that the college has made to safety by having me in this office now.”

Curtis uses the national protocol that the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) provides to prepare LC for emergencies as a part of the larger response system. FEMA deals with emergencies on a national scale and sets guidelines for smaller municipalities and communities.

“Here at Lewis & Clark, we try to use something similar, taking those emergency management principles and applying them to the college,” Curtis said. “So my job primarily is to make sure that the institution, the business practices, the operational capacity of the institution can handle the shock of an emergency.” 

In the case of inclement weather, such as the March snow storms, LC’s protocol involves communication between the emergency management board about the severity of the weather, how to best proceed and happenings on campus that may be affected.

“I’ll then send out a message to a core team of administrators saying, ‘Looks like we have some potential for winter weather,’” Curtis said. “ … Then, when we get to a warning — that means that the incident is going to happen — then we’ll jump on a phone call usually and talk about what the forecast looks like, what events are happening on campus, do we have exams scheduled, is there a concert scheduled, do we have a few teams traveling: what is happening at the institution?”

Director of Campus Safety Jay Weitman is on the emergency management board. Sometimes the Emergency Operations Center (EOC) needs to be activated as part of the response process. In most situations, Curtis would activate the center, but others have the ability.

“(Curtis) initiates the activation, although I also have the ability to activate an EOC and there are only a couple other people that have the authority to do that, like Dave Reese, our chief of staff,” Weitman said. “Executive Council can activate the EOC, my boss Yvette, vice president of student life, can activate the EOC — she’s on the board as well.”

In the event of an emergency, campus safety largely plays the role of notification and facilitation.

“Campus safety will alert the community of a hazard, and I have the ability to send out a rave alert — which are those messages that get blasted to not just your email, but your texts to your phone,” Weitman said.

Elizabeth Safran, associate professor of geological science, director of environmental studies program, and director of earth system science minor, teaches a class called “(Un)natural Disasters” that goes through the degrees of influence humans can have on disasters. 

Fires are an example of a natural disaster that can oftentimes be unnatural. People individually have the capability to start a forest fire. 

“Various types of management practices have the potential to alter the frequency and intensity of fires,” Safran said. “For example, there’s a lot of discussion about fire suppression and other land management techniques that may have altered fuel loading, for example. So, if there’s more fuel in a landscape it tends to promote more intense wildfires.”

Conversely, earthquakes are a type of disaster that humans have very little control over, therefore, the response is largely based on setting up resources in case it does happen. LC is located in the cascadia subduction zone and is thus at risk for earthquakes. 

“We, like most of our other peer institutions, have emergency supplies stored, just like ready to eat meals of medical equipment and supplies, fresh water filtration systems, things that you would need post-earthquake,” Curtis said. “We’ve gone towards the model of moving those out of buildings into standalone shipping containers.”

Safran worked with Associate Professor of Psychology Erik Nilsen, Associate Professor of Computer Science Peter Drake and Associate Professor of Rhetoric and Media Studies, Bryan Sebok, alongside a large team of students to produce a video game called Cascadia 9.0 to raise consciousness about the earthquake as well as preparedness.

Additionally, LC participates in the Great Oregon Shakeout, which teaches the “Duck, Cover, and Hold On” technique.

Safran, Curtis and a few students are interested in starting a physical education course that would teach students about emergency situations and get them protective certifications. The class does not currently exist, but its curriculum would include a community emergency response team (CERT), cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR), automated external defibrillator (AED) and neighborhood emergency team (NET) certifications. 

Anyone interested in increasing their emergency preparedness can take classes outside of LC to get those certifications. CERT certification classes are available on the FEMA website, while CPR/AED courses are offered by organizations like The Red Cross and American Heart Association. NET certifications are offered free by the city of Portland.

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