Taking its responsibility to students, faculty, and staff seriously, Sacred Heart University wanted a highly effective emergency response plan—one that could be updated at any time, with information always available to first responders and other authorized users. For this lifesaving function, the university built a Web site based on Microsoft® Office SharePoint® Server 2007. The result is more detailed, up-to-date plans and better interagency coordination.
Virtually every organization can benefit from a disaster-recovery plan—but colleges and universities are among the few institutions that are federally mandated to maintain emergency and incident management plans. Connecticut’s Sacred Heart University was subject not only to the federal requirements, but also to state requirements that call for such plans to be shared with “first responders” such as local firefighters, police, and emergency medical personnel.
Sacred Heart University met those requirements with more than 100 pages of plans held in a three-ring binder and reproduced in binders for the offices of local first responders. But that medium had severe limitations. Binders might not be updated, might not be available to first responders when and where needed, and might never have been shared with all the university personnel who needed them.
What the university wanted instead was a solution that would make information always available to campus users wherever they were, that would limit access to sensitive information to authorized users, and that would be a central repository for information.
In addition to text-based information, the solution had to hold campus maps and blueprints and interior photos of the buildings on campus. The system needed to be as accessible to off-campus first responders as it was to authorized campus personnel, and flexible enough to continually reflect new needs and new information. In the wake of shooting incidents at other campuses, officials at Sacred Heart also wanted a system that would permit anonymous reporting of suspicious behavior.
For its Comprehensive All-Hazard and Business Continuity Plan, Sacred Heart University explored the use of commercially available packages—until it realized that those packages would cost between U.S.$40,000 and $140,000, depending on licensing and consulting costs.
||With SharePoint Server, we can update our plan daily, so it contains not only more information, but also better information—information that could help save lives during an emergency.
Executive Director, Emergency Management and Department of Public Safety, Sacred Heart University
The university’s Public Safety department then began to explore alternatives already in place elsewhere at Sacred Heart. The one the department focused on was Microsoft® Office SharePoint® Server 2007. “Office SharePoint Server had the attributes we were looking for,” says Paul Healy, Executive Director, Emergency Management and Department of Public Safety, Sacred Heart University. “It was structured to live on the Web and was capable of holding a large document repository and making that repository accessible to users through highly detailed permissions. Development was easy, and uploading documents was as simple as clicking and saving them.”
Healy and his team developed their online Comprehensive All-Hazard and Business Continuity Plan on their own over a two-month period, largely by configuring standard features of Office SharePoint Server 2007, rather than developing custom code. In September 2009, they unveiled the system to the first responders who are responsible for working with it.
The plan exists as a password-protected SharePoint site within the main Public Safety site, and its home page includes tabs—for building plans, vulnerabilities, municipal partners, state and federal partners, training, and the Silent Witness tip program—which enable first responders and other users to go immediately to relevant sections of the plan.
The Public Safety department uses Active Directory® Domain Services, a feature of the Windows Server® 2008 operating system, to grant access to parts of the plan based on a user’s role or even the user’s unique Active Directory account in the university system. First responders have been granted Active Directory accounts for the purpose of accessing the emergency plan.
Anonymous reporting of suspicious behavior is made possible by the Silent Witness Anonymous Tip Form on the SharePoint site. When a form is completed, the system automatically notifies the campus security dispatcher. A team of university personnel evaluate threats that are not deemed to be emergencies, and students identified through the program may be encouraged to go to counseling.
The financial savings—up to $140,000—and the fact that extensive staff training was unnecessary are the least of the benefits derived from putting the university’s Comprehensive All-Hazard and Business Continuity Plan on a SharePoint site, according to Healy. He notes that highly detailed information is organized in an intuitive way, enabling time-pressed personnel responding to an incident to get all the information they need faster than they could from three-ring binders.
Moreover, that information is more valuable by being more up-to-date. For example, it’s always available to faculty, staff, and students with busy schedules. “The law requires us to update our plans yearly, and when we were working with paper-based plans, annual updates were about what we could manage,” says Healy. “With SharePoint Server, we can update our plan daily, so it contains not only more information, but also better information—information that could help save lives during an emergency.”
Healy uses the permission-based system to give students, faculty, and staff access to public information about responding to emergencies, but not to the underlying plans themselves. First responders have read-only access to all plans, and they can edit or change plans related to their own agencies.
The flexibility of Office SharePoint Server makes it easy for Healy to add plans for university departments—such as the public safety aspects of the athletics and international study programs—as needed. And the flexibility of Microsoft technology in general provides even greater benefits. For example, the Public Safety department provides access to the Silent Witness tip program from Windows® phones and other mobile devices.
For its site, the university won the 2009 Technology & Innovation Award from the International Association of Emergency Managers.