Planning for the Worst

Tufts departments and divisions take part in planning to ensure the work of the university continues, no matter the circumstances
snowstorm on Tufts campus
“Continuity planning helps you to do tomorrow whatever you were doing yesterday, no matter what happens today,” said Matthew Hart. Here, a snowstorm slows down the Medford/Somerville campus.
November 14, 2017

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You’re working on a project, and all of a sudden your hard drive crashes, or a pipe bursts and floods your office, or a blizzard hits town. What do you do to get the project done?

Strategizing about how to deal with these potential problems in advance is called continuity planning, something that a large number of departments at Tufts have already started. It entails figuring out how to continue the work of the university in the event of disruptions, both simple and complex, localized and widespread.

“Continuity planning helps you to do tomorrow, whatever you were doing yesterday, no matter what happens today,” said Matthew Hart, an emergency management specialist in the Office of Emergency Management.

In 2008, while preparing for the possibility of 40 percent absenteeism due to a feared influenza pandemic, university leaders realized they also needed to find a way for Tufts’ mission—teaching, research, and patient care—to continue in the event of a disruption. The university accelerated continuity planning in 2010 with the assistance of an Emergency Management in Higher Education grant from the U.S. Department of Education. The program became a university policy in 2016; key departments were assigned to develop and maintain their own continuity plans, and all departments were encouraged to participate.

About 35 Tufts departments have current continuity plans, primarily in central administration, ones on which other groups rely to keep their work going. In the past, emergency planning at Tufts had focused on maintaining core functions such as food service and public safety and security, said Geoffrey Bartlett, deputy director of public and environmental safety. Now Bartlett and Hart are urging other departments, particularly those in the academic and research enterprise, to join in the continuity planning.

The first step in the process is to designate a continuity planning lead to serve as a part-time project manager and group facilitator, and to form a planning team, typically made up of key staff members who understand how the department or division works and what its priorities are.

The continuity planning lead, with input from the planning team, uses Tufts Continuity Planner to develop the department’s plan. Designed specifically for higher education and requiring no training, the planner poses questions about which spaces, equipment, supplies, technology, and people are key to the department’s work, and how that work could proceed without those resources.

Before plans are approved, the department participates in a discussion-based exercise to validate the effectiveness of their plan. What if a vendor is suddenly unavailable? What if a key staff member unexpectedly wins the Powerball and quits? What if severe winter weather causes a two-day power outage? “The exercises are all about trying to find weak points and make them stronger,” Bartlett said.

Robert Kasberg, associate dean admissions and student affairs at the dental school said he was skeptical when he was first assigned to lead his group through the process a year and a half ago. But from the first meeting, he said, he was hooked. “It made us step back and say ‘OK, in different scenarios, how do we take care of our students and protect their information and enable them to continue studying? And what do we do if we don’t?’” said Kasberg. “For anyone who’s interested in solving problems and wants the best for their people, it’s extraordinarily relevant.”

As Kasberg noted, “It’s far easier to prevent a mess than it is to clean up a mess.”

Bartlett agreed. “You don’t get that many opportunities to fix it and get it right next time,” he said. “You’ve got to get it right the first time.”

Interested in developing a continuity plan for your department or organization? Visit emergency.tufts.edu/continuity to get started.

Monica Jimenez can be reached at monica.jimenez@tufts.edu.