In 2018, Jessica Johnson was just getting settled into her role on the emergency management team in the Division of Public Safety and Security at the UM-Ann Arbor campus. Her specialty was “continuity of operations,” an area that focuses on maintaining core functions of the university in the event of a catastrophic event. It’s something Johnson says people outside the emergency management world tend to not think much about. A little more than a year later, we'd of course all be thinking about continuity of operations. When COVID hit the U.S. in early 2020, universities were scrambling to figure out how to continue classes online, work remotely, make residence halls safe and ensure researchers could continue their work. “I went from having a pretty normal schedule to often working until 10 p.m. or midnight because we had to have 24/7 emergency support coverage,” Johnson says. “Every day, it was our responsibility to put together a big report with all the latest data about positivity rates, hospital bed utilization, cases on campus, the whole nine yards. That was our life, seven days a week for about a year.”
Thankfully, that intense pandemic experience didn’t burn Johnson out on preparedness work. She’s now bringing her expertise to the UM-Dearborn campus as the new emergency management and infrastructure security coordinator. Johnson, who holds a degree in homeland security from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, says it’s actually a fascinating time to be working in this space. For starters, she’s observed that the collective pandemic experience has made it easier to get community buy-in on preparedness planning, which could sometimes feel like pulling teeth before. In addition, there are some unique circumstances reshaping the preparedness landscape. The normalization of remote work and education has changed how we occupy and use our buildings, and with that comes the need for new strategies. Further, the prevalence of mass shootings, including the Feb. 13 incident on the Michigan State campus, has created a more visceral concern about physical security among students, faculty and staff.
Johnson says conversations about how to prepare for such an event are ongoing and evolving, stressing there is no easy, one-size-fits-all solution. “Every community has a different culture and it’s important to build your security strategies around things that the community feels comfortable with,” Johnson says. “Some people might feel safer with a more visible police or security presence, but we need to be mindful that other parts of our community might actually feel less safe in that environment, which is the opposite of what we want to achieve.” New infrastructure and technology will also likely be part of the path forward. But Johnson again stressed that whatever decisions are made have to reflect the community’s desires — and be well thought out. For example, she says institutions and businesses sometimes rush to equip themselves with elaborate camera systems, forgetting that they might not have the staff to actively monitor them.
In the more immediate future, Johnson is focused on UM-Dearborn’s Building Incident Response Team program. BIRT faculty and staff volunteers help coordinate emergency responses in particular buildings, and serve both as points of contact for building occupants in emergency situations and liaisons to first responders, who may need pertinent information upon arrival. Johnson says the growth of remote work and the fact that the university, like other workplaces, has experienced quite a bit of turnover since the pandemic mean that many BIRT units need new members. Thankfully, since her arrival on campus, she’s seen a lot of interest in participating in BIRT, as well as tabletop exercises, which can help leaders review and revise emergency plans.
“Continuous improvement is just the nature of the ever-evolving environment that is preparedness, safety and security,” Johnson says. “So we’re excited to dig in, talk with people and make updates to our plans so everyone feels safe and comfortable coming to work and learn on our campus.”
Have a specific question for our new DPSS Emergency Management and Infrastructure Security Coordinator Jessica Johnson? She’d love to hear from you. You can email her at [email protected].