The Path from Response to Recovery: Lessons Learned in Emergency Management

As the coronavirus continues to upend higher education around the world, emergency managers look back—and ahead—to build resilient international programs. 
Though international education faces a time of uncertainty, there are practical lessons to be learned from emergency management to help campuses come back stronger. Photo: Shutterstock

Julie Anne Friend’s job is to be prepared. As the director of Northwestern University’s Office of Global Safety and Security, she routinely imagines the worst-case scenarios. Before anyone had ever heard of the coronavirus (COVID-19), Friend had participated in three pandemic tabletop exercises, a practice that emergency managers use to work through how they would respond to various disaster-related situations.

Such exercises are more useful than just having emergency response plans in place, says William Huser, assistant vice president of New York University’s (NYU) Communications and Global Security Operations Centers. “While plans are...often a good reference during an incident, our experience tells us that no incident will unfold exactly as the plan anticipated,” he says.

Still, dealing with a real pandemic eclipsed the tabletop exercises Friend conducted in both speed and scale.

“You go to bed and then 8 hours later, there is a whole new set of facts to deal with,” she says of the initial response to COVID-19. “And all the decisions that you made the night before are completely irrelevant.”

Many of the plans that Friend and others conceptualize are created with hopes that they will never actually be needed. However, emergencies happen, whether it is an earthquake, hurricane, car accident, or epidemic. As the initial COVID-19 response has shown, preparation, execution, and reflection are key to shepherding staff and students through crises and building resilient international programs.

Making the Difficult Call to Bring Students Home

The decision to bring home students who are studying abroad is, in many cases, the most drastic action included in crisis response plans. As institutions across the United States made that choice over the past few months, those in charge of implementing existing emergency policies and decisionmaking processes sprang into action, taking into account the specifics of the situation around the pandemic.

“You go to bed and then 8 hours later, there is a whole new set of facts to deal with. And all the decisions that you made the night before are completely irrelevant.” —Julie Anne Friend

NYU was one of the first institutions to make that decision, bringing students studying in Italy back to the United States at the end of February. The decision was based on factors such as rapidly rising COVID-19 case counts, local Italian governments closing off towns or municipalities, airlines curtailing flights, and guidance from the U.S. government, as well as the governments of Australia, Canada, and the United Kingdom.

“It is fair to say that there were some who initially thought we were acting rashly when we suspended in-person operations at NYU Florence when it was clear that northern regions of Italy were affected, but before it was clear how devastating an impact the virus would have on the country,” Huser says.

Many other institutions, including Northwestern, soon followed NYU’s lead. “I think everybody thought they were being too risk averse,” Friend says. “In retrospect, that was a good decision. And their good decision led the rest of us to make good decisions, too.”

In addition to semester offerings, Friend recommended cancelling Northwestern’s spring break programs early on, much to the dismay of many students. “I just did not feel confident that we were going to pull it off without a lot of exposure to risk,” she says. “But I think the students [who] were mad at us then are not mad at us anymore.”

Calling students home is not a choice any institution takes lightly. “Everybody started thinking that the next country that gets it is going to be better equipped than the last country,” she says. “After Italy, it was much easier for people to look around and say, ‘This is only going to get worse.’”

white stairs curving around
Though the initial crisis response phase has passed for most institutions, what comes next remains uncertain. Photo: Unsplash

The University of California Education Abroad Program (UCEAP) activated its existing policies and practices for a large-scale emergency response when COVID-19 hit. Programming in more than 40 countries was affected, according to Ines DeRomana, director of international health, safety, and emergency response for the University of California system.

UC policy mandates that programs be suspended if they are in countries with a State Department Level 3 Travel Advisory, which meant programs in China were cancelled at the end of January. Students studying in Italy and South Korea were called home at the end of February, and all students were brought home when the Level 3 Travel Advisory was extended to the entire world. In addition to coordinating with all 10 UC campuses, UCEAP launched a huge operation to urge students to return home.

“We had to...assist students to complete their studies online through their host institutions [and] engage the UCEAP emergency assistance providers to coordinate travel and return of students who encountered problems in booking return flights, or changing their original return schedules,” DeRomana says.

Drexel University followed a similar course of action. “While we have never done a worldwide return from abroad, we were able to scale up the systems that were in place for more geographically targeted evacuations without too much difficulty,” says Marcia Henisz, senior director of international health, safety, and security (IHSS) at Drexel. “Critical to our ability to do this effectively was having in place well-established policies regarding high-risk travel and strong, trusted relationships and networks both inside and outside of the university.”

Adapting Existing Plans for Pandemic Preparedness

Creating an emergency response plan that can scale and adapt to multiple situations, such as natural disasters, political unrest and violence, or terrorism, is critical. Emergency managers say that while the effect of COVID-19 is unprecedented, their response still follows many of the same policies they would use in other scenarios, including calling students home due to U.S. State Department travel warnings and contacting students individually to make sure they are safe.

“To the extent possible, pandemic preparedness should aim to strengthen existing systems rather than develop new ones.” —Ines DeRomana

“While the current situation is an outlier, in many ways we have been able to take advantage of or adapt long-standing practices and procedures that were already in place here at NYU,” Huser says.

According to DeRomana, the basic premise of how institutions respond to a localized emergency compared to an event with global impacts remains the same. It’s the scale that’s different, she says.

“To the extent possible, pandemic preparedness should aim to strengthen existing systems rather than developing new ones,” she adds.

Response plans are most agile and adaptable when they include certain provisions: monitoring guidance from the State Department, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and other international agencies, as well as keeping campus decisionmakers up to date.

“Our emergency response plans are flexible and can quickly be customized to the specific event,” says DeRomana. “It is important for plans to be agile, particularly when responding to unthinkable events with [a] massive impact on operations.”

At the same time, DeRomana acknowledges that “a global pandemic of this scope that has shutdown countries bringing the global economy to a standstill, is fundamentally different from other threats and is outside the scope of issues typically taken into consideration when emergency planning.”

Bringing Plans to Action

Having an established leadership structure and communication strategy can keep all related parties abreast of decisions, changes, and other relevant information in a rapidly evolving emergency situation. As a result, plans can come to fruition more readily. Emergency managers at Drexel had been monitoring COVID-19 since January, providing updates to senior management and priming decisionmakers for what could come.

“This prepared everyone for our ultimate decision to discontinue programming abroad,” says Henisz.

Two key components of Drexel’s emergency response plan are a clear chain of command and a division of roles. Henisz’s travel security team takes the lead on any critical event that affects education abroad, in close collaboration with education abroad advisers.

“Working together, we would decide how best to address the situation and the roles of the support team, with initial communication generally coming from IHSS,” Henisz says. “For our response to COVID-19, we used a very similar structure, but with the entire team involved rather than just one adviser. Everyone knew their role and understood how to proceed, so there wasn’t a lot of duplication of effort or time wasted in dividing up the work.”

Existing emergency policies and procedures guided international offices in their COVID-19 response, providing a framework that could be adapted to the specifics of the pandemic. Photo: Shutterstock

As part of the chain of command, the IHSS team communicates response plans and travel protocols to Drexel’s senior leadership. “An understanding of our process and clear indicators of what would be a redline for university travel allowed for expedient decisionmaking at a time when moving definitively and quickly was critical to supporting Drexel travelers,” Henisz explains.

NYU’s emergency plan includes situation reports and stakeholder meetings, both of which have been crucial to the institution’s COVID-19 response. The global security team releases a daily situation report that details what is happening on the ground in various locations, keeping everyone involved in the response effort on the same page. “[The reports were] focused and customized to what was happening on the ground at each particular place, whether that was in China, or Europe, or the United States,” Huser says.

The team also has regularly scheduled meetings with relevant stakeholders. For COVID-19, those meetings initially included administrators at the NYU Shanghai campus. Then, site staff at NYU Florence were added to the group. Eventually, meetings expanding to include staff on the ground at all sites and various representatives from a wide range of departments at NYU’s Washington Square and Brooklyn campuses.

“While...the meeting participant composition may shift, this standing interaction allows us to discuss core work efforts, identify issues, and clarify in the moment tweaks to current practices to ensure that we are being as responsive as we can be in light of a rapidly changing environment,” says Huser. “These core principles—situational awareness and engagement with key stakeholders—are pertinent no matter what the situation is and are usable for both small and large events.”

Networking and Communicating Across Campus

Pre-established relationships and networks, across campus and across partnerships, help in identifying the right stakeholders to include in meetings and communications during crisis response.

“What we have found during various emergency situations is that there is no such thing as over-communicating,” Huser says. “While care should of course be taken to ensure that you’re communicating the right information at the right time, institutions of higher education need to understand that there are several different groups that need to be communicated with, both internal and external to the university—including those who may not be directly affected by the incident.”

International offices need plans for communicating with internal stakeholders, such as students, faculty, and staff, as well as with parents, alumni, media, and other external stakeholders. One strategy to manage communication is proactive messaging about potential decisions so the community is not caught off guard when difficult decisions are made. For example, Drexel has an emergency updates page on its website that shares information with the community about events of concern that the travel safety team is monitoring.

“What we have found during various emergency situations is that there is no such thing as over-communicating. ... [T]here are several different groups that need to be communicated with, both internal and external to the university—including those who may not be directly affected by the incident.” —William Huser

“When we made the decision to discontinue programming in March, we had already been in regular communication with students about the situation and the potential for an end to spring programming,” Henisz says.

Friend says that one of the biggest challenges of dealing with the effects of COVID-19 has been managing expectations and addressing needs of various groups on different timelines. The international office at Northwestern was simultaneously bringing students home from abroad while fielding questions from others who were wondering if their summer or fall programs were cancelled.

“One of the main things we [dealt with] was just triage management,” says Friend. “Who do we have to help right now? Who can we put off even just a few days? And who can we talk to in 2 weeks? Our office was very empowered and supported when we just said to people, in the nicest possible way, ‘Please back off. We have to do this first.’”


Six Tips for an Effective Emergency Response 

From Ines DeRomana, director of international health, safety, and emergency response for the University of California system

  • Promote staff wellness and encourage downtime. Meet biweekly to check in with staff on their well-being until the outbreak subsides.
  • Debrief when it is deemed safe for normal activity to resume. At that time, refamiliarize everyone, from senior leadership to the core response team, on the contents, roles, and responsibilities of the emergency response plan. Identify gaps and update plans.
  • Acknowledge that working on a pandemic preparedness plan takes time. It is not a quick process. It must address strategic, financial (depending on funding sources that support the international education office), and operational planning.
  • Consider scenarios that may lead the institution to suspend operations or operate at reduced capacity for a time, and include a financial risk assessment as part of major global crisis planning. A crisis that affects several countries can be the greatest threat to the international education office and could remain so for an extended period of time. Business interruption insurance can protect operations in some situations. However, it does not normally cover epidemics, infectious diseases such as COVID-19, or pandemics.
  • Create a robust communications plan, as misinformation and fear spread faster than the virus. A communications strategy must be central to emergency response and should include a designated spokesperson to addresses different internal and external audiences (e.g., media, university constituents, the local community, campus health services, campus counseling centers). Have a checklist for web pages, press releases, and internal and external audiences and consider distribution mechanisms to reach audiences. 
  • Consider how the institution will support staff working remotely if the state or local government issues lockdown orders.


Northwestern’s Education Abroad Crisis Management Council (EACMC), an existing cross-campus network, sprang into action during the institution’s initial COVID-19 response. The council includes a 20-hour training for faculty and staff across campus that provides a deep dive into how to support the international office in the case of a health or safety emergency. Since the program launched in early 2016, 30 Northwestern faculty and staff have completed or are currently enrolled in the course.

Prior planning and training among this group were helpful during the institution’s COVID-19 response, because different people on campus were able to get messages, such as the decision to cancel education abroad programs, out to their respective communities. “We maintained a regular stream of communication updates to these individuals, so they could feed relevant details to us for assessment and potential exposure as well as push out information to their communities,” Friend says.

Learning for the Future

Now that the immediate emergency response to the pandemic has subsided, institutions are turning their attention inward, reflecting and planning for a future that is still largely unclear.

“At this point, with nearly all travelers returned, many to their homes rather than to the Drexel campus, our focus is on providing support to education abroad and international students in completing their coursework online during a time when everyone, including our staff, feels great uncertainty,” Henisz says.

As international educators forge ahead on the path to recovery, unknowns and uncertainty abound. Yet, the time between initial response and full recovery presents opportunities to learn from the past to build back stronger, experts say. Photo: Shutterstock

It is also an opportunity to learn from the past in order to plan for the future. Huser says that debriefing after an event can be just as important as the tabletop exercises are before a crisis. Convening a group to conduct an after-action review—an emergency management best practice—can help to identify strengths as well as areas for improvement. These learnings can then be used to refine emergency response plans.

Huser says that NYU is adapting its pandemic response as COVID-19 spreads around the world. “Because of our extensive global outreach, we also benefited from lessons learned along the way—first in Shanghai, then in Florence, then in the rest of continental Europe and the United Kingdom, and then, of course, in New York and our academic centers in Washington, D.C., and Los Angeles,” he says.

“Now, as we’re reopening our Shanghai campus,” says Huser, “we’re paying special attention to what learnings we’ll want to transfer to New York and around the world as conditions improve and we’re able to gradually reopen facilities.”

He adds that international offices should take advantage of the increased collaboration across departments to solidify relationships, develop new plans or improve existing ones, and implement lessons learned.

“As the state of the world has shown us, events could occur that are fast-moving, complex, and unpredictable and will require us to call on these practices and relationships again to be able to respond swiftly and decisively,” says Huser.

While emergency managers hope their preparation will not be necessary, at some point they will be faced with emergencies ranging from car accidents to natural disasters to pandemics. Incorporating lessons learned into responses is, as Huser puts it, “important because they halt the natural tendency to revert back to ‘the way life was’ before an incident occurred and makes the organization more resilient in future incidents.”  •

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