The Feb. 14 massacre at a Florida high school reignited the national debate on how schools can better prepare for threats to campus safety. At many colleges and universities, a dedicated head of emergency management is responsible for planning how to handle campus crises.
There used to be one at MU. Now, emergency planning is shared by two people who already have other duties.
Members of the Campus Safety Committee say that goes against best practices. But MU administration and campus police say they are prepared to protect the more than 40,000 faculty, staff and students even without a full-time emergency management coordinator.“A large campus like this with so many people, with so much real estate and so many different things going on, it seems to me that thinking about emergency and safety planning is a full-time job,” said Brian Houston, chair of the Campus Safety Committee.
“The duties of emergency preparations have not been compromised,” MU spokesman Christian Basi said. “They are carried out by two individuals who work with emergencies as part of their jobs. Because we’ve been able to distribute those duties, you don’t have to have someone who is an expert in every emergency situation.”
Up until last summer, Eric Evans served as coordinator of emergency management for MU and the entire UM System. However, legislative budget cuts, totaling $13,775,470 to the Division of Operations since 2016, resulted in the decision to terminate the position. Evans, who is also a FEMA contractor, was paid an annual salary of $78,003 to develop campus safety plans, training and exercises for more than 40,000 people studying and working at the largest public university in the state.
Now those responsibilities are split between Douglas Schwandt, MU’s chief of police, and Todd Houts, MU director of Environmental Health and Safety.
Annual salary reports from fiscal year 2016-17 indicate that Houts makes $131,006 per year and Schwandt $125,500. Neither Schwandt nor Houts received a pay increase for the expansion of their duties.
“Chief Schwandt and Todd (Houts) are phenomenal people doing great work, and they’re qualified and well-trained in everything they do,” Houston said. However, he and other Campus Safety Committee members think the campus would be best served with a full-time emergency manager. They maintain that Schwandt and Houts already were occupied with full-time and essential job functions before Evans was let go, according to committee minutes from a May 2017 meeting.
Schwandt said he and Houts have delegated some of the new responsibilities throughout their departments.
“Todd and I are well capable and have made room on our plate to oversee these activities, which we did in many ways when we had an emergency manager,” Schwandt said.
“Eric (Evans) reported to me, so I was well familiar with the responsibilities and workload,” he said.
“Missouri has not prioritized higher-education funding, but you work with what you have,” Schwandt said.
Although he said some longer-term projects, such as coordinating automated external defibrillator (AED) access across campus divisions, have seen reduced attention without the coordinator position, Schwandt said MU’s emergency management needs are still being met.
“We’re leaner and meaner,” he said. “The safety of our campus is our top priority.”
When an emergency situation arises, the MU Police Department oversees the emergency notification system, MU Alert. The on-duty supervisor makes the decision to send out an alert, Schwandt said.
Basi said the coordinator position Evans held was “about preparation, not response,” and emphasized MU has adequate resources and personnel to respond to a variety of campus safety concerns.
“In a hostile shooter situation, the chief of police has and always will be in charge of emergency response,” Basi said.
Basi said the MU Police Department has increased its budget by $1.5 million in the past three years, adding 13 police officers and six police dispatchers, totaling 50 and eight positions, respectively.
In 2018, the National Council for Home Safety and Security ranked MU the 76th safest campus in the United States of 243 surveyed.
Still, the Campus Safety Committee sees room for improvement.
Houston, who also serves as director of the Disaster and Community Crisis Center at MU, pointed to the range of other possible crises that could hit a school like MU — including natural disasters like tornadoes and ice storms, lab accidents and the potential for chaos unfolding at Faurot Field.
The past three years alone, multiple incidents have occurred on or near campus warranting concern and reaction from emergency personnel, including reported bomb threats, armed suspects on campus, dangerous road conditions precipitated by inclement weather and outbreaks of infectious disease. After each incident, the coordinator of emergency management was responsible for considering how to better prepare the campus in the event of future occurrences.
The 17 dead in Florida have pushed the active-shooter scenario to the forefront of the campus safety dialogue.
“No school wants to be in that situation where something goes wrong,” said MU senior Daniel Noonan, who serves on the Campus Safety Committee as a representative of the Missouri Students Association.
Noonan acknowledged school shootings are not always predictable but added, “Most students would lik e to know the university is taking the necessary steps to prevent those things from happening.”
In 2008, one year after a lone gunman killed 32 people at Virginia Tech, the school hired its first director of emergency management and now lists three separate emergency coordinators on staff.
The tragedy there spurred the growth of emergency management programs at institutions of higher learning across the country. MU made Evans its first coordinator in 2013.
Several members of the Association of American Universities — many of which are regarded as MU’s peer institutions — employ an individual solely responsible for thinking about emergency preparedness, including the University of Florida, Vanderbilt University and the University of Illinois-Urbana Champaign.
“What we’ve seen looking at other campuses is that it’s ideal to have someone that is entirely in charge of emergency management and spends all of their time thinking about those issues,” Houston said.
At Illinois, Lt. Todd Short serves as the head of a full-time, four-person team that works year-round to build the school’s emergency action plans, run drills and initiate responses to safety concerns such as active shooters threats, tornadoes and fires, said Patrick Wade, communications director for the University of Illinois’s police department.
“Seeing the different things that have happened around the country, seeing the shooting at Northern Illinois University (when a University of Illinois graduate student killed five people there in 2008), how close to home that hits every time that happens, can be scary for a lot of universities,” Wade said. “Lt. Short always talks about how it’s not a matter of if — it’s a matter of when.”
“We spend a lot of time and a lot of resources preparing for something we hope never happens here, but we do want to be prepared if it does,” he said.
Missouri State University, an institution also grappling by the state lawmakers’ cuts to higher-education funding, hired its first emergency preparedness manager in December 2016.
Since MU dissolved the emergency management coordinator position, the minutes of the Campus Safety Committee show that members have repeatedly urged the administration to revive it. Minutes from the November 2017 meeting show the committee sent MU Chancellor Alexander Cartwright an email about the issue but received no immediate response.
“Having one person whose sole job is to prepare for campus emergencies is ideal,” said Noonan, the student representative. “Most people on the committee are in favor of bringing the position back.”