published Saturday, March 8th, 2014

Emergency operations center keeps UTC prepared for disaster

UTC emergency management specialist Tim Pridemore discusses the uses and functions of the university's emergency operations center.
UTC emergency management specialist Tim Pridemore discusses the uses and functions of the university's emergency operations center.
Photo by John Rawlston.

The chances of the Tennessee River flooding the downtown area and leaving the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga as an island are slim.

But even if such a scarcely fathomable form of mayhem breaks loose on the UTC campus, university officials know where to go and what to do in order to orchestrate a coordinated response. In fact, they have simulated that exact scenario and keep an Excel spreadsheet filled with other possible campus disasters.

In a time when the fear of shootings and other such activity is high on college campuses across the nation, UTC is hoping for the best and preparing for the worst while trying to consider everything that could happen in between.

Led in part by emergency management specialist Tim Pridemore, dubbed "Doctor Doom" because of his knack for stocking the spreadsheet full of possible campus crises, UTC sees itself emerging as a leader in higher education emergency preparedness.

At the core of the advancement is an on-campus emergency operations center -- a little known classified situation room filled with computers and other technology -- that serves as the rendezvous point for campus leaders in the event of a cataclysmic occurrence they hope never comes.

The facility is local evidence of a national trend emphasizing campus security in the aftermath of events like the 2007 shooting massacre at Virginia Tech.

"It is a major investment," said Richard Brown, UTC's vice chancellor of finance and operations. "But it's one that in this day and age you cannot afford not to make."

UTC's year-old operations center is packed with 17 computer-armed work stations, several large television screens, a radio system and the technological necessities that would allow school officials to collaborate with one another and communicate with the outside world during a disaster. A backup generator that would keep the room functional during a power outage is next on the agenda of items to add.

"The facility is not quite complete," Pridemore said. "But it is usable."

Though its amenities and purpose suggest that it could be located in a fortified, underground bunker, it is actually housed in a converted administrative room on a central area of campus. The existence of the emergency operations center is not a secret, but university officials prefer to keep its exact location quiet to prevent it from becoming a target of ill-wishers.

Most other campus buildings and rooms are numbered and identified by signs near their entrance. But nothing identifies the operations center on the outside.

UTC has doubled the amount of personnel in its Office of Safety and Risk Management in the past five years and spent $232,918 over that span outfitting the operations center and purchasing other emergency preparedness equipment.

"When we started putting this together we were fortunate that Dr. Brown made the commitment that we were going to have a first-class facility," Pridemore said.

In the Emergency Operations Center's first year, UTC utilized it to simulate disaster situations like "Hurricane Hamilton," the fictitious flood-inducing storm that Pridemore said is actually possible.

The National Weather Service and Tennessee Valley Authority contributed to the computerized flooding exercise, which copied the 2010 weather conditions that caused the Cumberland River to spill into downtown Nashville. When shifted east in the simulation, those same elements dumped 4 feet of water on Market Street in downtown Chattanooga.

"We got everyone together [in the operations center] and said, 'What do we do?'" Pridemore said. "We do not simulate things that are not within the realm of possibility. There's no point in it."

If the Chattanooga flood became a reality and 3,000 resident students were stranded on a UTC island, Pridemore said it would cause a logistical nightmare, which is why spots are reserved for a variety of university offices in the emergency operations center.

Seats with computers, power outlets and land-line phones are reserved for the offices of Student Development, Residence Life, Food Services, Business Services and other UTC entities that could help manage the needs of a distressed campus.

Additional funding through a 2010 federal grant specifically for emergency management also helped UTC lure the Best Practices in Higher Education Emergency Management Conference to campus last year. The event is returning to Chattanooga next week, featuring experts from major universities across the country sharing their crisis handling experiences.

Collaboration between peers and local authorities is key to staying updated on the latest trends and most effective methods of emergency management, and national campus safety expert Michael Dorn affirmed the progress made by universities that are effectively prepared for disasters apart from sole reliance on local authorities.

Dorn, the executive director of Safe Havens International, a nonprofit campus safety center, said the dedication of universities to implement a seeming luxury like an emergency operations center should be weighed against the fact that many institutions boast the population of entire municipalities.

UTC's enrollment of nearly 12,000 is more than the population of Collegedale and double the population of Van Buren County. Though not all students are on campus simultaneously, 79 percent of the freshman class lives on campus.

"It is important to keep the context when you're looking at a high-end thing like a command center," Dorn said.

Fifteen years ago he came away from a trip to the University of Georgia impressed with the emergency management setup that was state of the art for its time. After the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and the Virginia Tech massacre that left 32 dead, others have rushed to catch up and have been aided through technology that makes having an emergency operations center more practical.

But it's only when campuses know how to use those resources that it really makes a difference, Dorn said. He has seen hackers disable emergency operations centers through their cellphones.

"When it's done right, it's pretty impressive stuff and can literally make a difference between life and death for a lot of people," Dorn said.

Locally, the hope is that decisions affecting life or death will never be made in the emergency operations center at UTC, but that if they are, everyone involved will have a clear understanding of what to do.

"The will to win doesn't matter," Pridemore said, quoting legendary Alabama football coach Paul "Bear" Bryant. "Everybody has got that. It's the will to do what it takes to prepare to win that is important."

Contact staff writer David Cobb at dcobb@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6731.

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