Virtual EOC is Campus Base of Operations

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From 2006 until the outbreak of H1N1 in spring 2009, the University of Wisconsin Madison (UW-Madison) made pandemic influenza planning a priority for campus organizations and departments. In 2006, initial support for pandemic planning came directly from the Chancellor's office. Given that the University of Wisconsin Madison Police Department (UWPD) oversees emergency management on campus and that the Chief of Police is also an Associate Vice Chancellor, the UWPD became significantly involved in pandemic planning and H1N1 response. University Health Services (UHS) and university police formed the Campus Health Issues Planning (CHIP) Committee, which built relationships and communication protocol between health services, police, University Communications, human resources, housing services, occupation health, the Dean of Students, the registrar's office, and the provost. From 2006 onward, UWPD ensured that campus organizations and departmental deans, chairs, and directors were trained on UWM's pandemic plan and continuity of operations (COOP).

When students started to become ill with H1N1 in 2009, Dr. Sarah Van Orman, UHS director, "had the courage and trust to institute the university response plan because she believed the H1N1 outbreak was a significant event," said Captain Steven Rogers from UWPD Planning and Development. The police established an Emergency Operations Center (EOC) in a UHS conference room, and Dr. Van Orman served as Incident Commander. UWPD had received significant National Incident Management System (NIMS) training, and they were able to direct the structure of the EOC. The EOC took over many administrative aspects of the H1N1 response, from ordering masks to creating and distributing personal hygiene posters. Their direction of the EOC freed UHS staff to open a triage phone line and provide comprehensive care of ill students.

The urgency surrounding the H1N1 outbreak dissipated after several weeks of operating the EOC from a physical location, and staff decided to use a virtual EOC instead. The virtual EOC allowed health, police, and communications staff to perform their emergency functions while returning to their usual roles on the campus. UWPD was accustomed to operating 24 hours a day, so the transition to communicating via a virtual EOC was fairly efficient in terms of time and maintaining emergency functions. Communication strategies, however, had to change to accommodate the new strategy. Whereas staff could communicate in-person or via a white board in the physical EOC, the virtual model required much closer collaborations with a variety of on-campus organizations. The police department's years of prior planning proved invaluable as these collaborations grew increasingly necessary.

UWPD used an e-mail platform called MHUB to handle EOC communications across campus. Communications were mainly handled by a communications corps that included a police lieutenant, staff from University Communications, and staff from UHS Communications. MHUB coordinated a very large project wherein all academic departments that were deemed essential to the university's operation were supplied with templates. They were required to identify their most critical courses and to write COOP plans detailing how they would proceed if classes on campus were canceled during the H1N1 pandemic or due to any future disaster. Those plans were reviewed according to criteria supplied by the provost's office, the UHS director, and UW-Madison's enrollment management office. EOC staff tracked all of these plans and reported to the CHIP committee on progress as needed by using MHUB.

The core of the virtual EOC's effectiveness was UHS' ability to act quickly in response to the changing H1N1 situation on campus and the early involvement of the UWPD. Using a virtual, rather than physical, EOC depended significantly on cross-campus collaboration between departments. UW-Madison's years of planning and significant police involvement in the process ensured that the virtual EOC was able to build and maintain relationships, take administrative burden off of clinicians, and carefully manage the flow of emergency communication.

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