Fresh out of graduate school, Kenneth Allen left his home state of Alabama for North-Central Florida when he accepted a position with Alachua County Emergency Management in 1998. Little did he know that over the next six years, Alachua County would see a dramatic number of incidents requiring emergency management expertise, including flooding, large wildfires and hurricanes. Allen, who is now the director of the UF’s Department of Emergency Management, received plenty of on-the-job learning experiences early on in his career.
Just a few years earlier, Allen had only a passing knowledge of the field of emergency management. He earned his Bachelor of Arts in Political Science from the University of Alabama and was working towards his Master’s in Public Administration when he landed an internship with Tuscaloosa County’s Emergency Management Agency. It was Allen’s first real exposure to the profession and it piqued his interest immediately.
After his six-year stint with Alachua County, Allen became UF’s first Emergency Manager in 2005. Over the years, Allen has seen the world of emergency management grow from a somewhat inconsistent field that was often a second career for those retiring from another public safety field to a thriving, mature profession that people enter just out of school, like Allen.
At UF, Allen has been able to help the university’s emergency management procedures evolve and improve through a continual process. In recent years, Emergency Management has helped launch the GATORSAFE app for smartphones, help guide the university in establishing a Comprehensive Emergency Management Plan and established the Take Action guidance – a brief list of the most important actions to take in a number of emergency scenarios. But perhaps the most crucial component to emergency management is relaying all of this valuable information to students, faculty and staff.
We spoke with Allen about the world of emergency management and its challenges at UF, and the emergency management resources available to the UF community.
For those who may not know much about it, what does emergency management mean and what does it entail?
It’s always hard to give the quick elevator speech on what emergency management is or what I do. But at the core, what we focus on is resiliency – that’s the new buzzword. That we make the University of Florida resilient to all hazards, to different incidents that may impact the university. Certainly some things we work to prevent and keep from occurring at all. But for those we cannot, such as tropical weather, we have plans, training and procedures in place so that the university can respond to those and return to normal operations with a minimal disruption.
How does the Department of Emergency Management interact with other aspects of the university that people might think of as emergency-related, like crisis communications or the police department? It seems like there are a lot of moving parts.
Absolutely. The university has incredibly talented people in positions across the institution who lean forward on emergencies. We try to be a basket weaver between all of those areas so that we create an organization which we call the Emergency Operations Team. The Emergency Operations Team gives the university the ability to have one voice, one organizational framework to respond to incidents. No matter what the incident is we still have the same team, we can coordinate information and resources including student issues, employee issues, facility issues and business issues.
How are emergency management procedures established?
Certainly it’s a participatory process, we establish those through the overall architecture of the university’s Comprehensive Emergency Management Plan (CEMP). We develop that in partnership with other units and those departments are really the subject matter experts in their respective areas. We want their input on how the process should be laid out, how we prepare, respond and recover as an institution. And then our department works to provide a common operating picture during incidents.
Tell me how the Take Action guidance plays into this?
The Take Action guidance is an important resource for everyone in the university community and I’m excited about it. It translates the CEMP at the individual level. It is something anybody can use and say, ‘What should I do during severe weather, what should I do during an active shooter, what should I do during a bomb threat?” It gives you 200 words or less bullet point guidance on what to do in each of those situations and others.
Hal Grieb, Emergency Management Coordinator, worked with stakeholders around campus to compile the information during 2016. Much of the information was out there, but it was on different websites across the university and was written in different ways. The project was really to bring all the guidelines into a central place for the university community and to get it down to concise guidance that someone can read and digest quickly.
It covers a lot of different scenarios and includes the Run Hide Fight strategy for active shooters. Do most universities at this level adopt that same Run Hide Fight strategy?
Run Hide Fight is really the national standard. It was developed by the City of Houston and was adopted by the Department of Homeland Security. Most national training is based on Run Hide Fight, and the UF Police Department has been promoting it over the last several years through Capt. Jeff Holcomb’s training sessions and outreach. That was a case where we worked with a department on their existing guidance to integrate into the Take Action product.
How do you distribute the Take Action guidance to faculty, staff and students?
We’re continually working to promote it across campus and will be trying new approaches in the future. The main ways currently to find it are on our website and especially on the GATORSAFE app. Everyone at the university is encouraged to download the app for free from the Apple and Google Play app stores.
Can you tell me a little more about the GATORSAFE app?
The GATORSAFE app is a great tool for the university community to get public safety information in real time. There are several things you can do on there, including the ability to text with UFPD dispatch and a friend walk feature where your friend can see your location if you’re walking alone on campus. Of course there’s the Take Action guidance, contact information and several other useful safety tools.
What are some of the biggest challenges you’ve faced?
One of the challenges when we first established the UF Alert system was the fact that UF has a much decentralized culture. We had to work with numerous stakeholders for that process, and we still are.
But we have great participation from various areas across the institution that make the process appear seamless to the end user.
What are some recent accomplishments for UF and the Department of Emergency Management?
One of the things was the StormReady designation certification in late 2015. The designation is a partnership with the National Weather Service demonstrating the University’s commitment to weather preparedness and response.
I’m also extremely proud of our Emergency Operations Team. The representatives on the team have been dedicated and have stayed the course, not just when there’s a hurricane impending. You can easily get people’s attention when an emergency is imminent, but this group of leaders from across campus has consistently been willing to participate in exercises and trainings on a regular basis.
Another initiative we’re getting off the ground is helping UF’s colleges and departments with their internal emergency plans. We’re doing this through a year-long cohort program that kicks off this month. It’s a 12-month process and we meet once a month to help the departments either update their current plan or create a new plan. At the end of that year, they should have an emergency plan and more importantly the skillset to know how to continue to update the plan in coming years, as well as understanding how their college or department plan fits into the overall university plan. This year begins our third cohort. Our goal is to have worked with every college and department on campus over the next several years, then start the process over.
In wrapping up, what does the future of emergency management look like at UF?
As a department, we want to improve and continue honing our skills as emergency managers in order to best serve the University. Chief Linda Stump-Kurnick and the other administrators at UF have been incredibly supportive of the program, including making it a standalone department in recent years. Our goal is to be a leader in higher-ed emergency management. As the profession better establishes standards, we want to ensure the department is providing emergency management at a level consistent with a top-tier university. Going forward, one focus will be improving our outreach to the whole university community so everyone has a better understanding of how to be prepared for emergencies and how to respond. The catchphrase is, “Get a plan, get a kit, be informed.” And then that’s when we get to the more resilient university we spoke about earlier. We can have a great plan at the university level but if colleges and departments aren’t prepared, and even more so, if students and employees aren’t prepared, then we really aren’t prepared as an institution.