In case of emergency, UWRF has a team ready to go

Posted November 30, 2020

Amid a global pandemic, UW-River Falls has found a way to remain operational thanks to its Emergency Management Team (EMT).

The coronavirus pandemic left many universities with no plan, since the pandemic plan prior to COVID-19 was to close down, according to Beth Schommer, the university’s chief of staff and EMT liaison. The university couldn’t remain closed for the academic year, so the team went to work planning.

At UW-River Falls, the EMT consists of four main branches: logistics, finances, planning and operations. Under normal circumstances the team meets frequently to discuss plans and how to handle possible scenarios of emergency, according to Joseph Kmiech, the campus director of technology and leader of the EMT.

Once the team is considered activated — a decision made by senior leadership on campus — it is renamed the Emergency Operations Center (EOC), according to Kmiech. EMT members continuously plan and prepare in case of activation. Members receive annual training in emergency response, modeled after the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which helps in disaster and emergency response.

According to Schommer, the EOC has a framework that is consistent across institutions. She said this is a way to help designated staff know what to do in case of an emergency. The most common emergency the team deals with is severe weather.

The core staff is made up of people who already are connected to campus in some way, and the volunteers are a mixture of students, student organizations, faculty and members of the community. The first activation happened back in January, and the second was in September, caused by a spike in positive COVID-19 cases. More people were needed during the second activation to handle the situation.

“The EOC went from typically about a dozen people and we scaled up to about 61 individuals across campus for about 40 fulltime equivalents. We went from four to five contact tracers to over a dozen,” Kmiech said.

Due to a spike in cases, the EOC absorbed the university team in place related to coronavirus into the operations sector. Kmiech said the previous group had plans in place but didn’t have enough resources to do what it needed to do.

At this time the EOC is not considered activated.

Dina Fassino is the director of communications and marketing for the university and the public information officer for the EOC. Fassino said she works with the Joint Information Center (JIC) to communicate information to the university as well as the public.

“This was such a huge story, we couldn’t manage it with just me,” Fassino said. “JIC has other people who report up to me or into me things that are coming in through the email inbox or we have a hotline developed. So we have information coming in as well as going out. It’s a very dynamic situation.”

Fassino and her team also work to update online platforms with any new information and frequently asked questions. JIC remains activated through this time and is still meeting daily.

Crystal Lanning, the director of athletics, also is the leader of case management under the EOC. Case management deals with contact tracing, isolation and quarantine housing and case intake. Lanning said the goal is to help students as quickly as possible, though many factors are out of their control.

“No two cases are exactly alike so you have protocols in place about going through scripts, things that you need to say, information that you want to gather, what the process will be if it’s someone with a positive test or a negative test,” Lanning said. “But then you get specific circumstances and they may not fit nicely within that protocol.”

Throughout the many challenges of navigating the pandemic, the university’s number of positive cases have returned to a manageable level.

“It was amazing to be a part of this and to see how we all pulled together and it continues to be,” Fassino said. “I’m working with great people where everybody really knows their role. We’re in good hands.”

In the future, Fassino will work on marketing the team to raise awareness of it.