By Jesus Acevedo Jr.
The month of June brings the start of Atlantic hurricane season, and many of our departments and programs have recently updated their Continuity of Operations Plan (COOP) documents to be ready to continue operations with minimal disruption in the event of a wide range of emergencies.
The many departments within the Division of Administration and Finance update their COOP documents in advance of this season, and spend much of the year, preparing the campus infrastructure to continue its operations in a wide variety of potential emergency situations.
On a macro level, the university’s Office of Emergency Management (OEM) is the hub that coordinates, communicates, and drives UH’s hurricane preparedness. And it’s something that OEM begins to do in February.
OEM coordinates with each department’s ride-out team – a group of people who remain on campus working to ensure that critical infrastructure components are uninterrupted. The ride-out teams are trained by OEM and given guidance on how to ride out the hurricane successfully in their respective department.
“We have big bins in our emergency operations center so that if at any moment that myself or the Emergency Management Specialist Brian Hall need to stay on campus, we don’t need to wait. We don’t need to go home. We’re ready,” said Walker. “We have our supplies in the Emergency Operations Center (EOC), and we’re ready to go. We’re ready to go at any time.”
“For example, we might have somebody from Academic Affairs, and that person would give us information with regard to what academic affairs is planning,” said Walker.
The Emergency Operations Center is reliant on the University Information Technology department to keep OEM up and running.
“The UH Office of Emergency Management, which is responsible for coordinating the entire UH/UHS response is dependent on UIT services to perform those functions,” said UIT Chief Information Security Officer Mary Dickers. “Therefore, UIT takes all steps necessary to not only ensure our services are fully redundant, resilient, and available at all times, but that we have the ability to adapt quickly to changing campus/system situations and needs – whatever those may be.”
On a micro level, the departments within Administration and Finance follow the guidance provided by OEM. This includes having a COOP in place, which OEM reviews and approves.
A COOP plan is a contingency plan that guides a department on how it can continue operating its essential functions during an unplanned event, such as a hurricane.
And while all departments have similar hurricane preparedness guidelines, some departments have unique circumstances that alter how they prepare for hurricane season.
Houston Public Media (HPM), for example, conducts a monthly test of its generators. While it houses PBS and the HPM radio station, it also houses OEM, so it’s imperative that HPM’s building maintains power through a hurricane.
Another such case is with the university’s Environmental Health & Safety (EHS) department. When a hurricane is on the radar, EHS immediately thinks of its hazardous waste from the university’s laboratories. EHS communicates with its vendor to have them pick up the waste.
EHS Director Lisa Benford said her team speaks with professors and faculty to ensure any instrumentation in the room is turned off and that no experiments are being conducted.
“We want to make sure that Facilities, we work closely with them because there are devices in laboratories that are being used to keep the agents and the dangers and the exposures away from students, faculty, and staff. So, we want to make sure those things are functioning properly,” said Benford.
While EHS handles safety in the classroom, the University of Houston Police Department monitors campus safety, including reducing criminal opportunities.
“We have our officers looking for storm damage and potential threats. We want to make sure that roads are clear,” said UHPD Captain Brett Collier. “We work a lot with student housing to make sure that people are where they need to be. We generally try to help in the role of transporting folks that need to get from one place to another.”
UHPD also plays the role of an information provider, and the department prepares accordingly.
“We make sure that all of our emergency communications are in place because our dispatch center is a real high priority when we have emergencies, such as hurricanes, because calls of any nature tend to come through police dispatch because people just don’t know where else to call,” said Collier.
In anticipation of a high-call volume when a hurricane is anticipated to hit Houston, UHPD sets up an incident command post in their multipurpose room and plugs in additional phones to better serve the high number of calls that could be received by UHPD.
The one advantage to preparing for when a hurricane is approaching is that departments know long before it makes landfall. Fire and Life Safety Director Chris McDonald said his department has specific objectives it does when a hurricane is 72 hours, 48 hours, and 24 hours, from landfall.
“We also make sure we contact the construction projects that we have on campus,” said McDonald. “That they’re aware of it, and they all have their own plans, but we just make sure that they are aware of it, and we walk through kind of what they’re going to do and how they’re going to keep their sites safe while no one’s here.”
The Fire and Safety department, much like UHPD, is also on campus responding to calls.
“Our planning is kind of an all-hazards planning, so it’s not specific to one thing. We kind of do an all-hazard type of plan,” said McDonald. “So, we have tools in place that are going to help us with almost anything that comes up.
There is uncertainty during hurricane season as to which tropical storm will turn into a hurricane, and it’s something that David Oliver, senior associate vice chancellor/senior associate vice president for Facilities, finds the most difficult during hurricane season.
“This makes the decision making on when to elevate preparations based upon uncertain storm tracks and activating the ride-out team difficult,” said Oliver.
Facilities/Construction Management prepares for the season by doing inventory, restocking emergency management supplies, like sandbags, and de-icing sand, checking the emergency management equipment, like generators and floodgates, inspecting all roofs across campus, and removing any potential missile hazards.
For the university’s dining services, the difficulty of dealing with a hurricane comes down to staffing, obtaining supplies, and adjusting alternative spaces and methods of preparation.
The need to “stay ready” is a mantra the university’s parking department shares with its team. The department looks for and inspects its parking facilities to ensure large items are secure.
The mantra is also one each A&F department lives through before hurricane season. Preparation is key to diminishing potential damage from an incoming hurricane, and in 2022, A&F is ready for the season.