Managing the university’s response to a pandemic

- Melanie Groves

Rob Johns with the UVic Safety App. Photo: UVic Photo Services

In early March, the University of Victoria made the decision–along with other post-secondaries in Canada and around the world–to transition away from in-person classes and administrative offices to embrace remote learning and working. The institution’s emergency response structure and the pre-planning that is done year-round by the university’s manager of emergency planning laid the foundation for UVic’s rapid response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

A Q and A with Manager, Emergency Planning Rob Johns

Q: Did the university have a plan for the COVID-19 response?

Rob Johns: Although the COVID-19 situation is unprecedented, the university maintains a high-level Emergency Response Plan that outlines our response for a variety of scenarios, from a Level 1 local emergency to Level 3 incident–which includes the most serious threats to life and safety or university infrastructure. The plan is flexible so it could be adapted for COVID-19. A number of other plans, such as the Crisis Communications Plan, help different units with specific emergency response actions.

A Level 3 emergency calls for the establishment of a campus Emergency Operations Centre (EOC). UVic established our EOC on February 27.

Q: How does the EOC operate?

Rob Johns: The EOC is a central group of key administrative and academic leaders who plan and coordinate emergency response and recovery activities. The EOC structure allows for nimble decision-making with the right people working together. UVic’s EOC management team and larger EOC group met from Feb. 27 until May 21, with management team meetings most mornings for the first several weeks.

The Emergency Operations Centre is supervised by an EOC director–in this case, Kane Kilbey, Associate Vice-President of Human Resources –and deputy director (Susan Lewis, AVP Academic Planning). The group includes leaders for planning, operations, communications, logistics and finance/administration, who rely on broader teams to advise and make recommendations related to all aspects of the university’s academic mission and operations.

During March and April the EOC made recommendations on a wide range of issues ranging from remote learning, teaching and working tools and protocols, to safety equipment and cleaning protocols, to campus security concerns, to standard signage required for the gradual re-opening of campus.

The EOC director and deputy director reported regularly to the Executive Policy Group (EPG), which includes the president, provost and other vice-presidents. The EPG provides direction and approves strategic policy decisions recommended by the EOC.

Q: Does the EOC exist all the time?

Rob Johns: No, the emergency structure is there in the background during regular university operations and training exercises are held so that members can practice in their roles. The president or the vice-president of finance and operations can activate the EOC as required. And in this case, many of the members of the EOC worked virtually once we made the transition to remote working. That was a first for us.

Q: What was the advantage of opening the EOC in response to COVID-19?

Rob Johns: Activating the EOC allowed the university to respond in a nimble and coordinated manner. Staff with knowledge and training were able to quickly plug into the EOC structure, plans and resources. These leaders stepped into their roles and worked incredibly hard to address the many issues that arose due to the pandemic. The way that the entire campus moved into a more virtual environment was remarkable –leveraging online collaboration tools with great success– and this shift significantly supported the activities and effectiveness of the EOC.

Q: Now that we are entering Phase 3 of the province’s Restart Plan, how will that affect the UVic EOC and response planning?

Rob Johns: Now that we expect to be in this “new normal” state for some time to come, decision-making is transitioning back to the regular university management model. Decisions will take place at the unit level, and then go through directors or deans to AVP and VP portfolios and the university executive. Over the next few months, a transition team will help to ensure that activities and decisions are coordinated and well communicated.

If there is a need for it–for example, if there is a second wave or a local outbreak of COVID-19–the EOC can be activated again on short notice.

A central COVID-19 website, managed by University Communications + Marketing, will continue to be a central resource for information. However, over time unit-level information will move to department websites where students, faculty and staff will most likely look for it.

Q: Where can staff and students find more information about emergency planning?

Rob Johns: Check the Emergency Planning website for information about upcoming training sessions, and a variety of personal preparedness and planning resources for faculty and staff.

I also encourage everyone to download the UVic SafetyApp, which is the quickest way to receive notifications from the university in an emergency. It’s free to download from the App Store and Google Play, and will soon include COVID-19 information.

Upcoming emergency planning courses

These interactive sessions will be conducted in a secure Zoom video conferencing online room. Please register on Learning Central.

Personal safety in the workplace
Tuesday, June 23, from 1 to 1:30 p.m.
This will be a discussion-based session highlighting personal safety tips. Questions welcome.

Emergency preparedness workshop
Wednesday, June 24 from 9 to 10:30 a.m.
Emergencies happen! Do you know what to do to be prepared for earthquake, tsunami or other disrupting emergencies? Attend this session and learn more about how you can be prepared in case disaster strikes.


In this story

Keywords: COVID, administrative

People: Rob Johns, Kane Kilbey, Susan Lewis

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