Portrait of Yuri Graves, UNLV's first emergency manager, stands by a call box.

Yuri Graves Helming UNLV’s Emergency Preparedness Efforts

The university's emergency manager comes by his experience with crisis planning courtesy of the U.S. Coast Guard.

Look out. A zombie apocalypse may be in our future.

At least that’s one idea that Yuri Graves, who just came on board as UNLV’s first emergency manager, is kicking around as a way to draw the students into emergency preparedness planning.

But Graves’ job goes well beyond devising imaginary scenarios to entice students to think through safety issues. Whether it’s a large-scale natural disaster or an isolated threat, a crisis can crop up anywhere at any time.

“For universities, there is an expectation of safety on a campus, as if a campus exists in a little bubble,” he said, “but no campus truly is in a bubble — and certainly not one located next to the Las Vegas Strip,” he said.

It’s a daunting challenge, but one that’s faced through preparations and planning.

First Steps

Graves, who began work on campus in January, is assessing plans already in place universitywide and at the college and departmental levels and comparing them to national emergency management accreditation standards. 

“I think the university is doing some things quite well,” said Graves, pointing to RebelSAFE as an example.

RebelSAFE, which is administered by police services, includes text messages that are sent to the phones of employees and students who have signed up. It also offers a mobile app through which people can receive those same messages and also have access to quick ways to report an emergency or a crime in progress, to request a police escort late at night, or to chat in real time with someone in the police dispatch center.

The new emergency telephones on campus, which were paid for with a $250,000 grant from CSUN student government, also are an important part of RebelSAFE. The phones include bright lights and surveillance cameras. In some locations the phones also include a public address system that can be used to broadcast emergency information.

He came to UNLV after five years heading the city of Henderson’s emergency preparedness efforts, so he already has connections in agencies across the valley. The week before he joined UNLV, he briefed the Academic Advisory Council and began meeting the UNLV people he is likely to be dealing with when an emergency occurs.

Working Together

Key players in campus emergencies include more people than the president, the provost, and the police chief, he noted. For instance, you need the CSUN president, the head of Student Counseling and Psychological Services, and the people who run the Thomas & Mack, Cox Pavilion, and Sam Boyd Stadium. Those and others can play important roles, depending on the nature and location of an emergency.

“Emergency management is about building relationships and collaborating,” he said. “You don’t want to be exchanging business cards at the disaster.”

Once Graves completes the assessment, he wants to ensure that the campus Emergency Operations Center (EOC) is adequately staffed, equipped, and ready to go. (The center is not a permanent location. It is designed to be up and running quickly when it is needed, and the location can vary, depending on need and building availability.) Making sure that the center is good to go when needed will include training key players in UNLV’s emergency response and testing the university’s emergency equipment.

Eventually Graves would like to see a permanent EOC established to make a faster response possible — with one or more backup locations available in case the center cannot be used in a particular emergency.

And he wants to create an emergency management council that includes senior administrators as well as leaders of student and employee groups. For a crisis management plan to be successful, he notes, representatives of all constituent groups need to be involved in what he describes a “whole campus” process.

He also plans to develop an outreach program that would expand RebelSAFE. It will include teaching people how to plan for an emergency, with such things as emergency preparedness kits for their dorm rooms or offices. Members of the university community may also be able to sign up to volunteer in various capacities in case of an emergency.

Student Involvement

Involving students can be a challenge since mortality is seldom top of mind for college-age students, he said, adding that once they buy in, however, they tend to become very involved and proactive.

Thus the idea for a zombie apocalypse as training. Imagine students trying to apply safety concepts as they attempt to reach a certain location while avoiding roaming zombies in the process. While a zombie apocalypse may not be the final plan, the idea is to come up with an activity that is both educational and entertaining, he said.

Disaster Experience

Graves’ 20 years in the Coast Guard took him to multiple countries and gave him up-close experience with more than one disaster.

For Hurricane Katrina in 2005, for example, he served as the deputy incident commander for salvage, wreck, and debris removal.

“I came in to clean up and get waterways open for trade, transportation, and commerce,” he said, adding that he and his team had to salvage vessels that had been damaged or pushed ashore by the storm. He said it was something to see 35-foot boats that had come to rest between houses 10 miles inland from where they had been berthed.

Critical Communication

Crisis communication is one of the most important — and tricky — areas of crisis management, Graves said.

Initial information is almost always wrong in his experience. Still, in an ongoing emergency, such as an active shooter situation, getting information and directions out quickly is imperative.

In that case, you send out the best information you have as soon as you can, he said. Then you continue investigating and updating your audience with new or corrected information as soon as it becomes available. The goal is always to keep the community safe by telling them what they should be doing and where they should or shouldn’t go.

Using a variety of communication channels — including text messages, emails, social media, digital signage, and the media — is important in order to reach as many people as possible. Also, it is impossible to know when one or more communication methods suddenly will become unavailable, forcing you to go to another method. As old-school as it might seem, the city of Henderson kept a loud speaker that could be attached to a truck to broadcast information if necessary.

Helping UNLV prepare has personal meaning for him as well, said Graves.

“I was a student here when I was in the Coast Guard,” said Graves, ’04 MS Environmental Science. “Now my son is a sophomore here and my younger son will be a freshman in the fall.”

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