Campus & Community

Schools practice ‘table-top’ crisis response:

7 min read

University tests its crisis response system

Emergency management team in a 'table-top'
Members of the HMS and SPH local emergency management team participate in an all-school ‘table-top’ drill held at the Business School Oct. 18. Teams from each of Harvard’s schools worked out of individual rooms at the Spangler Center in responding via e-mail to hypothetical crisis developments that escalated every 15 minutes. Staff photo by Justin Ide

A Harvard student has died of a mysterious illness with flu-like symptoms, and three others are in the hospital with what appear to be similar symptoms.

Rumors are flying. Is it an epidemic? Bioterrorism? Should classes be canceled? Should staff come to work? Parents and community leaders are demanding answers, and so is the world’s media, which has descended on the campus. What measures should the University take to ensure safety, convey reliable information, and allay panic?

Fortunately, this particular crisis is a hypothetical one. But it could very well be the real thing. In order to test their readiness to deal with such an emergency – one that spreads across individual campus boundaries – Harvard administrators took part in a “table-top” exercise last Friday (Oct. 18) in which they formulated responses to an evolving crisis situation.

“All of Harvard’s schools have local emergency management plans and this exercise was specifically aimed at helping the schools with their efforts,” said Provost Steven Hyman. “But major emergencies don’t ask permission before spreading across school boundaries, so coordinating plans, management structures, and processes for responding beforehand are absolutely essential.”

After Sept. 11, President Lawrence H. Summers mandated that Harvard’s emergency response procedures be evaluated and structured for optimal coordination. Out of that process came the “Incident Support Team,” comprised of the directors of the University offices involved in most major emergencies. The Incident Support Team assists the schools in their response and advises the “Crisis Management Team,” which is chaired by the provost, and is convened if the emergency escalates beyond school boundaries. It includes the president, vice presidents, and deans affected by the crisis.

Throughout these efforts, there has also been ongoing work by the provost’s office to coordinate logistical and emotional support necessitated by such emergencies by involving the deans of students in regular meetings.

“This drill was impressive in that by linking individual schools by computer and watching them communicate with the Incident Support Team every 15 minutes as the scenario developed, we were able to learn from each other what worked best from both the school and university level in a very professional and collegial way,” said Hyman.

The exercise was designed by Michael Watkins, associate professor of business administration, and Jennifer Leaning, professor of international health in the Faculty of Public Health, both specialists in emergency response. The University’s Incident Support Team also contributed to the design of the exercise.

Sitting in isolated rooms in Spangler Hall on the Business School campus, representative teams from each of the University’s 10 schools waited for the latest developments in the crisis to be revealed to them via e-mail.

As the increasingly complex “emergency” evolved over the course of eight days, the participants had to deal with a bewildering array of developments:

  • The sick students had all recently returned from a trip to southern Africa where they could have contracted the deadly strain of flu from Madagascar which had killed 7 percent of that country’s population.
  • The student’s illness and death was reported in the Crimson and was being discussed in numerous student e-mails and chat rooms.
  • TV crews were showing up unannounced on campus and reporting inaccurate information.
  • The illnesses were being investigated by state health authorities.
  • The disease seemed to be spreading beyond those students initially exposed overseas.The teams had 15 minutes to come up with a response to each update and submit it back via e-mail to a core group that included Watkins, Leaning, and the members of the University’s Incident Support Team. All the participants met at the conclusion of the exercise to discuss the results and share what they had learned from each other.”You were all taking it very seriously from the beginning, working well together as teams, and showing a real sense of competence, and that was wonderful,” Leaning said.Leaning and Watkins reminded the group that the most effective way to prepare for a crisis is to anticipate the kinds of things that might happen and develop effective responses which can be put together like building blocks to suit the particular set of circumstances.

    “You also have to make sure you’ve got the right people on the team and then find backups for them in case someone is taken out of the picture,” Watkins said.

    Watkins warned the participants that “overreaction can be as harmful as underreaction. You have to decide what is signal and what is noise and how to calibrate your response.”

    David Rosenthal, director of University Health Services and a member of the Incident Support Team, said that people managing a crisis have to be very careful about rumors and misinformation. Using one University Web site and setting up special phone numbers to disseminate accurate information are two measures Harvard has taken to counteract this tendency.

    Rosenthal also suggested that in any serious crisis, administrators must plan early on for providing psychological counseling for those affected.

    Joe Wrinn, director of the Harvard News Office, also on the Incident Support Team, said that communication is often initially out of the control of those managing the crisis, which is all the more reason to avoid conflicting statements by establishing one official place for disseminating accurate information.

    “The key is to conceive of communication as a wagon wheel: You place reliable, accurate information in the ‘center’ of that wheel, then use the ‘spokes’ to communicate to specific audiences in the ways and means they are accustomed to getting their information,” Wrinn said.

    He also discussed mutually beneficial methods of working with the news media.

    “There are ways of bringing news organizations ‘under the tent’ and having them help you control rumors and misinformation. That’s in everyone’s interest. You have to give the press regular, accurate information. This will cut down on wild, inaccurate news stories that begin with the unsourced phrase, ‘It has been reported that …’”

    Francis “Bud” Riley, chief of the Harvard Police Department and a member of the Incident Support Team, said that in an actual crisis like the one described in the exercise, and given the increased awareness of potential terrorist activity, the University would soon be forced to relinquish management of the situation to state and federal authorities.

    Riley said the key to assuring that the University’s needs be acknowledged and implemented during a crisis is being in regular contact with state and federal authorities before an emergency occurs. This ensures that all involved are familiar with each other’s needs and practices.

    “Once the situation becomes public, we need to maintain reliable and accurate communication with these authorities, or we’ll lose control,” Riley said.

    Friday’s exercise was one of what are becoming frequent, precautionary practice sessions conducted at the University, school, departmental, and building level across campus. Schools or departments wishing assistance in any of the core areas covered by the Incident Support Team may contact the following Incident Support Team members: David Rosenthal (health) (617) 495-2010; Francis Riley (police) (617) 495-1780; Joe Wrinn (communications) (617) 495-1585; Thomas Vautin (operations) (617) 495-7563; Polly Price (human resources) (617) 496-2316; Daniel Moriarty (information technology) (617) 495-9092; and Diane Lopez (general counsel) (617) 495-1280.