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Is BG prepared?

As storm clouds roll in and cast shadows over the University, trees bend under the sheer force of 270 mph winds and warning sirens echo throughout the 1,155 acres of campus – signaling a tornado is heading toward BGSU.

Students and faculty scramble to find shelter in basements or ground-level rooms away from windows or large openings.

Meanwhile, University officials activate the campus emergency response plan.

The plan is an 11-page document that outlines ways to respond to different levels of emergencies, roles of designated University offices and how emergency responders ensure communication among one another.

And after more than 30 colleges and universities were severely damaged by Hurricane Katrina – with some even shut down – BGSU officials were prompted to take a closer look at the University’s current emergency response plan.

“It’s been a good opportunity to re-evaluate our plans and [determine] how we can get better and how we can improve,” said Bryan Benner, associate vice president for administration.

A team of 17 individuals was recently formed to begin critically reviewing individual emergency plans at the University – like plans for Residence Life, Student Affairs, the Health Center and several others.

Creating unity among all the plans will potentially increase effectiveness during large-scale emergencies, Benner said.

“The opportunity we have is to pull all those plans together and make sure those plans are coordinated with the larger central plan,” he said.

In an attempt to avoid the chaos that occurred in New Orleans – where more than 100,000 students were displaced – BGSU is striving to learn from other universities’ mistakes.

Tulane University, a four-year private school in New Orleans, is among the several universities near the gulf forced to temporarily close its doors due to severe hurricane damage.

Tulane has been criticized over the past few months for lacking an emergency plan capable of dealing with a disaster of Katrina ‘s magnitude.

In an interview with The Chronicle of Higher Education, Tulane’s President Scott S. Cowen said the plan was tested several times before Katrina hit, but “our plan did not anticipate the total devastation of the city.”

And although hurricanes are not an imminent threat to the University, an average of 16 tornadoes touch down across Ohio each year, according to the National Weather Service in Cleveland.

It would take a massive category F5 tornado with wind speeds stronger than 300 mph to annihilate the University, said Jay Berschback, meteorologist at WTVG-TV in Toledo.

“To level your University, it would take a huge F5,” Berschback said. “But they are very rare.”

The NWS data, which dates to 1950, reports only three F5 tornadoes having hit Ohio in the last 55 years.

But despite the low chance of a tornado ravaging BGSU, we have to be prepared for any type of emergency, Benner said.

“Every emergency situation is unique,” he said. “The goal is to react as quick as possible on the best information you have.”

University officials have jumped at the opportunity to revise BGSU’s emergency plan, ahead of several other universities in Ohio.

Kent State University’s campus emergency plan has remained untouched, and even if changes are made down the road, Hurricane Katrina hasn’t pushed them to do so, according to John A. Peach, public safety director and chief of police at KSU.

“Certainly nothing that took place in New Orleans or Mississippi impacted our review,” Peach said.

Officials at the University of Toledo also weren’t prompted by Katrina to review their emergency plan.

But David Hopka, director safety and risk management at UT, said the Gulf Coast disaster heightened their level of awareness.

“I wouldn’t characterize it as a wake-up call because we weren’t asleep, but it raised the level of concern,” Hopka said.

In addition to BGSU’s 17-person evaluation team, Benner wants to help those at the University know how to keep themselves safe in an emergency situation.

“The biggest thing we need to improve is awareness,” Benner said. “We have a real opportunity to expand personal safety issues.”

Benner estimates the revised emergency plan will be completed next summer.

And as a way to further evaluate the new plan’s efficiency, a table-top exercise – an emergency scenario staged to test strengths and weaknesses of the plan – is tentatively scheduled for fall 2006.

“You can prevent headaches by doing some pre-planning,” Benner said. “The part we’re continuing to work on is how [to] improve our planning and anticipate things that are going to occur. It’s the preplanning that really helps you.”

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