Iowa State’s crisis response receives update

Hannah Postlethwait

Events happen, such as accidents, severe weather, health issues, car accidents and so much more. No one comes to the university expecting to find themselves in crisis; it’s not what they put in the brochure.

The associate dean of students said that’s the very nature of crisis. Rather than pretending that’s not true, the university works behind the scenes to make sure students are cared for.

An important tool to keep ISU students, faculty and visitors safe is the Student Affairs Crisis Response Manual.

The manual goes through a comprehensive revision process every five years, and was due to be updated this summer. The manual is currently in the final stages of editing and will be finalized in the coming weeks.

Keith Robinder, associate dean of students, has been in charge of guiding the revision process.

“We need a crisis response manual because it provides structure to the university, so that we’re not making things up during the midst of a crisis,” he said.

Robinder said the manual is a tool to help staff — throughout the division of Student Affairs — understand their roles and responsibilities when crises occur. It is also a helpful training tool to ensure all staff are ready to respond to crisis.

In the manual, a crisis is defined as “a difficult or dangerous situation that has the potential to escalate and requires immediate attention to minimize risk and/or prevent negative impact on others.”

Crises include situations like medical emergencies, mental health issues, civil disturbances, public health emergencies, natural disasters, deceased students and other things of that nature.

“If you think of any significant incident that would really impact students and their ability to succeed at the university, we’ve tried to outline what our plans are,” Robinder said.

The updated procedures are less detailed than before. Robinder said keeping it simple is the best way to ensure each response can be individualized. 

“It’s important to have a plan that you’re ready to act on and provides you guidance to be effective, but isn’t so constraining that you feel like you can’t be responsive to what that particular situation demands,” Robinder said.

The principles embedded in the plan are being responsive, being individualized in those responses, putting people’s safety first and working collaboratively to best serve the campus.

The manual will now be stored on CyBox. This way, if any changes are made, people still have access to the most current version.

CyBox is a place where students and staff can store and share files for their own use, or share them with others at Iowa State, according to Iowa State’s Information Technology page.

Robinder said practices shifted because, overtime, the nature of life has become more complex with things like social media. He said there’s more of an emergent sense to things, so it’s important to be equipped to act faster.

“More than anything, best practices evolve,” he said. “What was the best practice three to five years ago is not necessarily what we are doing now. There’s a constant sense of that.”

Social media now plays a key role when instructing students in a time of crisis. Robinder said Twitter is currently its most effective channel of communication because it’s able to keep up with the immediacy of crises.

The ISU text alert system is also an important tool, but Twitter has proved to be more effective because of its timeliness. Robinder said the text alert system can take 10 to 15 minutes to get alerts out to students and staff, whereas a tweet can be received instantaneously to the moment it’s posted.

But in a time of crisis, both communication strategies would be implemented. 

Robinder also said Twitter may not always be the most effective channel of communication to the ISU community.

“We are still feeling like Twitter is where students are going to for instant updates around crisis and we’re always monitoring to make sure that’s true,” he said, adding that today Student Affairs would use ISU Police and the university’s social media and Twitter accounts to provide information accordingly.

Student Affairs has a social media working group that meets monthly, regardless of crises. Robinder said the group is ready to coordinate as needed to produce the best possible response on the best possible communication channel, whether it be Twitter, Instagram or something new.

Sometimes crisis exceeds what Student Affairs can do. Robinder said when something requires immediate action, the plan says to call the police. The ISU Police Department works in unison with Student Affairs to keep Iowa State’s campus safe.

In that instance, the police can manage the situation while the division of Student Affairs responds to the people involved.

Chief of Police Jerry Stewart said the ISU Police Department keeps a copy of the manual. Student Affairs helps the police, too. The police can call the emergency dean on duty to help deal with family affairs that arise in their work.

The emergency dean system is an on-call rotation within a small group of about 10 people from the Dean of Student’s Office. In a moments notice, it’s their responsibility to respond to a police call or drive to the hospital at 3 a.m., whatever it takes to be there for a student.

The most frequently used section in the manual details the administrative procedures for how the university responds when a student is deceased. An average of eight students die per year.

Whether the death is accidental, suicidal or because of crime or illness, the university has an immediate crisis response to deal with things like shock, trauma and the sense of “how do I get through this?”

The plan provides a high level of operational detail, so the grieving family of a student doesn’t have to navigate the bureaucracy of the university.

“We are absolutely concerned about your loss and concerned about how this must be impacting your family, but as it relates to Iowa State University, you don’t have anything to worry about.”

Meeso Kim, sophomore in animal science, had a friend at Iowa State die last year. She said the situation was handled quietly, with respect to the student and others.

“Because of what I’ve experienced, I know the crisis response manual is important. Things were quiet, and no one panicked. There was obvious structure, and our only concern was supporting each other,” she said.

Robinder said all of the key members involved in the manual’s revision process took every opportunity to ask themselves what the best way to respond to crises is and made sure that was reflected in the plan.

He hopes students have confidence that the university cares for them. He said Iowa State takes its responsibility of keeping campus safe very seriously.

“Care for the individuals involved, teamwork, communication, partnering with external agencies and sensitivity to needs and wishes of those affected are cornerstones to our campus crisis response,” the crisis response manual reads.