Rice students may be most familiar with the university’s emergency management systems as strings of texts or emails symptomatic of heavy rains or flooding, but they encompass much more than that. Rice University’s new crisis manager Jerusha Kasch took office in February of this year and began working on plans to improve the existing systems, including the development of a new crisis center building and online disaster preparedness training programs for students.
“I’m one of those people that deals really well with stressful situations. In a crisis I can see the big picture. So when I got into crisis management, it felt like home for me.”
Since taking office as the Director of Instutional Crisis Management at Rice, Kasch has been focused on assessing the effectiveness and capabilities of current emergency preparedness systems to determine where improvements need to be made.
Kasch said she will first be looking to increase interdepartmental preparedness cooperation and foster greater coordination between Rice’s emergency preparedness branches by creating a new preparedness center building within the next year.
Kasch also said she will be looking to expand and improve student training resources. This will involve university-wide drills and training exercises, improved information sharing systems and student-led videos and programs promoting safety.
“We decided one of the best things we could do would be to give some training that is push-button accessible on the Rice system,” Kasch said. “If we tell students to shelter, they can push a 30-second video that explains how. That can be done at orientation.”
Kasch said student input has been crucial to the assessment process, and will continue to be crucial for filling in gaps in security.
She received a number of letters from the presidents of residential colleges expressing the concerns of their student bodies, which prompted her to try to create a more effective plan for the future.
“We want students to participate in the planning process and give us feedback about what works and what doesn’t,” Kasch said. “So we are actively engaging the student population in that way.”
Kasch said recent events, like the tornado emergency on Feb. 14 and reports of an active shooter at the Ben Taub Hospital a week later on Feb. 21, have exposed a lack of effective coordination between the different branches of emergency preparedness systems at Rice as well as gaps in training for students and faculty.
She said information has not been readily available to the student body during similar events in the past, making many students unaware of where they should shelter or whether they should attend classes.
During the Ben Taub incident, however, Kasch said she was able to coordinate a response with the Rice University Police Department geared towards increasing information flow and screening visitors to campus. This was the result of an already strong relationship between RUPD and the Houston Police Department, she said.
“Ben Taub was interesting in that information flow was not great,” Kasch said. “Our police chief had resources at the hospital that were giving us information directly because Ben Taub was so overwhelmed. So we had officers liaising with the Houston Police Department so that we could base our response on the most up to date information.”
Sreyas Menon, a Lovett College junior, said he had noticed the lack of information, and understood that the crisis management team had done their best under the circumstances, but he thought that there could have been more clarity on the status of classes during the emergency.
“I think they are improving,” Menon said. “I think they handled the Ben Taub shooting pretty well, nobody really knew what was going on there. In the tornado warning, they should have made a decision about whether classes were on or not rather than giving a mixed message.”
“We will be building an emergency operations center where all of the response departments can come to create a coordinated, managed response,” Kasch said. “That’s going to take a facility, training and exercise.”
RUPD interim police chief Clemente Rodriguez said he plans on working closely with Kasch to increase training and information flow between emergency response departments.
“I believe [Kasch] will bring a strong set organizational skills, experience, and knowledge in the field of crisis management,” Rodriguez said.
“As a member of the Crisis Management Team, RUPD will work closely with [Kasch] to manage incidents on campus, which includes vital information sharing.”
Kasch began her career in law enforcement with the Cowlitz County Sheriff’s Department in Portland, then worked as an emergency responder and later started in emergency management in public health for the states of Washington and Oregon.
“I’m one of those people that deals really well with stressful situations,” Kasch said. “In a crisis I can see the big picture. So when I got into crisis management, it felt like home for me.”
Kasch said she regularly spends time volunteering on the scenes of other crises in order to gain a better sense of how her orders as a crisis manager translate to responders on the ground. This spring she helped repair damaged houses in southern Louisiana after heavy rains swept through the region.
As Rice’s crisis manager, Kasch said her primary goal was ensuring students were able to spend as much time in class as possible. She said has involved striking a balance between trying to give students enough information to keep them safe, but not so much as to waste valuable class time.
“My job is to make sure that you’re safe, that we rescue anybody whose life is in danger, and that we get you back in the classroom as fast as possible, because that is what you are paying us to do,” Kasch said. “Then you go out and provide as a great member of society. This is an institution of learning and if we cannot get you back in the classroom and help you fulfill your goals, we are not fulfilling ours.”