Oct 31 2006

Universities Rely on Information Technology When Disaster Strikes

When an emergency strikes on campus, technology workers are among the first responders.

I am particularly fond of the story about the dog that chases the bus, with the punch line, “OK, now that you've caught it, what are you going to do with it?”

As CIOs in higher education, the bus we've been chasing is recognition of IT as a strategic asset to the institution. We've been working hard to convince our administration that IT is not a necessary evil to be tolerated or a luxury to be basked in; rather, IT truly enables everything we do at our institutions. We've striven to be raised to the cabinet level – to sit at the big table and participate actively and broadly in university administration since, as our rhetoric goes, IT is integral to the university's basic functions and success.

This is never more true than when a crisis hits your campus. Need to communicate with your campus community in the midst of that crisis? Better be sure the Web pages are working and accessible to the Internet, and that e-mail is flowing.

The alphabet soup of agencies has shown up on your doorstep to provide emergency response and relief assistance? You'll need phone lines and phones, Internet access, plenty of notebook computers to loan out, plus IT support. Trying to track evacuees, emergency workers, volunteers and the like? Someone had better quickly set up a database and an easy-to-use, portable application to interface to it.

In the 21st century, we in IT are critical personnel – emergency responders – who must show up when disaster strikes. Our business continuity plans have always featured elements of hardware restoration, and certainly considerations for data integrity and recovery. But they also must include a healthy chapter on perhaps our most important IT asset: our people.

You can't recover a database if you don't have a database administrator. You can't bring up an emergency network node or roll out 50 VoIP phones within a shelter if you don't have a network engineer. You can't write a program to keep track of people flowing in and out of that shelter if you don't have an application developer.

Since the beginning, IT people have had to work through the night, on weekends and on holidays to keep our systems up and running. If there was a crisis, we could usually count on these systems' users to be offline and need only the most skeleton of crews. That's no longer the case. If the campus police are in, for instance, they need us in to ensure their systems are working.

We need to know where our people are, have a way to gather them in a crisis, bring them in to support the crisis response and ensure that they are kept safe while they do it. And let's not forget that they also have families: We need to think about how we help them care for their loved ones in an emergency situation.

I don't have the answers on how to deal with all these issues. However, as I've let my mind expand to consider the various aspects of disaster planning, this is the latest lightbulb to go on.

IT is critical to the function of our institutions. In fact, we are now first responders. We have caught the bus, and we had better figure out what to do with it.

Brian D. Voss

Title: CIO at Louisiana State University and A&M College in Baton Rouge, La.

Background: Has 22 years of IT experience, with more than 20 of them in higher education; served as a consultant to higher ed institutions regarding IT support models and optical network infrastructure planning.

Crisis Experience: Responded to the IT needs of Louisiana State University after Hurricane Katrina.

Read the Q&A with Brian D. Voss on page 11 to learn about how Voss and his LSU staff dealt with the infl ux of New Orleans evacuees and disaster relief workers after Hurricane Katrina.