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Adaptability Helps University Deal with Pandemic's Uncertainties

In late May 2020, Security Management spoke with Kevin Davis, assistant director of public safety at Harding University and co-chair of the ASIS School Safety and Security Community, on what he was facing as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Harding is a private, Christian institution located in Searcy, Arkansas.

The following is a transcript of the interview edited slightly for length and clarity.

SM: Please describe your security department.

Davis: We’re an inhouse propriety armed security who’s commissioned through the state of Arkansas to provide armed security for the university. We’re responsible for a Pre-K through 12 school, Harding Academy; Harding University, which is about 4,500 students and another 1,000 faculty and staff; and a retirement center on campus. We are licensed to carry weapons, but don’t have arrest powers. Our full-time force is 17 officers.

In our division we have public safety, parking and transportation, and we manage security technology, such as ID badges, cameras, and that sort of thing.

SM: How did the pandemic affect the spring term?

Davis: A pandemic is a unique emergency from an emergency management standpoint. Most emergencies are an instantaneous situation. We need an instantaneous reaction to ensure mitigation of the concerns. I would refer to the pandemic as more of a slow burn.

Here at Harding, while students were on spring break, our administrators met and decided that at first we would postpone the students’ return by two weeks and transition to online classes. The decisions were based on the CDC guidelines in place at the time and recommendations from the state of Arkansas. Eventually the decision was made to just cancel the rest of the semester as far as in-person classes and finish the semester completely online.

SM: How did the decisions affect the security division?

Davis: From a security standpoint we just had fewer people on campus. It was a situation where normally during a regular school year our focus is mostly on protection of people, and of course we protect our assets as well, but people are our primary focus. Suddenly we’re in a situation where all of our people are gone and we become primarily focused on asset protection. In offices and dorms, a lot of personal possessions were left behind when people left for spring break, and they needed to still be there when they eventually came to retrieve them.

SM: How did students and faculty get their stuff back?

Davis: We’re primarily a residential campus, so we had to worry about their bicycles and their vehicles that were still here, as well as their belongings in their dorm rooms. When Harding made the decision not to reopen campus for on-ground classes, our student life team had to develop a system for students to come back and retrieve their belongings from the dorms while enforcing social distancing and following CDC recommendations as far as the number of people allowed in a space at one time. It was a complicated process, where students made appointments with resident life coordinators—aka dorm moms—to come get their belongings. And we did the same thing with our Pre-K through 12 school. It required flexibility, and there was a learning curve all along the way.

SM: What was security’s role in the process?

Davis: Our primary role would either be programing student ID cards to let them back in at the appropriate time or we would physically go let them in the building. We had residence hall managers who worked through the scheduling. Our role was just making sure once the students got here they were able to go in and retrieve their belongings. As the process evolved, we would program the doors to be open at certain times when we knew students were coming, and we would put time schedules on student IDs. It was a slow process over a couple of months. We had to work with students who were trying to get here from other states, and so there were a lot of factors to consider.

SM: Did campus being closed have other significant impacts on security?

Davis: Our department also relies heavily on student employees who help us out with crowd management at events, and we run a golf cart escort at night service. They also help us out on shifts doing service calls for the community, jump starts and rides, things like that. When the decision was made not to resume classes, we lost the student employee sector. We continued our security work 24/7, but it was only our full-time staff members. It became a shorter staffed shift, but it kind of resembled the way things slow down during parts of the summer. In a way, the pandemic has felt like an extended summer to us. Most summers we’ll have various summer programs going on for some of the time, but there’s a bit of downtime, too, when we don’t have a lot of people on campus—and what we’ve experienced has been like that, but for extended periods.

SM: Other than assisting in the retrieval of possessions, what have you been doing?

Davis: Summer in general is our slower time when we kind of catch our breath and catch up on some longer term projects that we’d like to accomplish, and so this has given us a great opportunity to do a lot of that. We work on updating and revising policies and procedures, updating or creating training manuals. We’ve also taken the opportunity to conduct a lot more training with our officers. We routinely conduct armed officer training at the firing range. We do active shooter simulation training. All of my officers are medical first responders, so we’ve done medical refresher training. It’s been a great experience just to get face time with all of our guys and get their input on updating policies and procedures and those sorts of things.

SM: Has Harding made a decision about fall semester?

Davis: Our administration has been carefully watching everything, and their goal is, if there is any way possible, we will resume on-ground classes for the fall, but they haven’t made a set-in-stone decision on that yet. They continue to monitor CDC guidelines and state recommendations.

SM: Whenever there is a return to campus, whether that is to begin the fall term or some other time, what changes do you anticipate for security?

Davis: There are a variety of ways it could potentially affect security. Nobody has a crystal ball to see what is going to happen, but areas that could be affected are of course major events—whether its sporting events, concerts, speaker series, things like that. We don’t know if we will be able to resume larger gatherings of people, or if we do, we don’t know what that will look like. We won’t know whether we have to prescreen people, whether we will require personal protective equipment like masks or gloves—so for sure how we approach big events will affect security. As far as our Division 2 NCAA schedule, we don’t know if there will be a season or how that will go.

Smaller things like our escort program, we don’t know what that will look like. We typically do those in golf carts, so you cannot easily provide distance or barriers. We don’t know if those programs will resume, and if they do, whether we will require PPE for not just our officers but for the students who are riding as well.

We actually have a daily chapel that is required here on campus, and once again, it's just like any other major event that happens, we don’t know if it will happen, and if it does, we don’t know what it will look like. We don’t know if we’ll have to divide that into smaller groups or if PPE will be required.

We provide medical transport and treatment for our students on an emergency basis, and that will probably be affected in some way as well. And we don’t know if there will be any routine health screening for COVID-19 when we’re back. If so, we don’t know if our officers will be asked to help with that screening in any form or fashion, be it crowd control or be it actually helping administration in some way. We are not sure about that, but that’s another possibility of things we could be involved in.

And of course another big concern will be when we do resume, what will we do if a student is sick? What’s the process that’s going to happen there? Will we need to quarantine the student somewhere? Will we send them home? We don’t know what piece of that, if any, that our armed security team would have as far as helping out. What will class size look like? Will we require PPE? How will these things be enforced?

SM: I think there were a couple dozen unknowns in there—how do you possibly make preparations for that?

Davis: I think that’s just across the board right now. Anybody you talk to will be saying the same things. Nobody can make a solid prediction, even the experts are up in the air right now. We are making preparations for a variety of possibilities, things we can think of that could happen, and we’ll just see what actually happens and make adjustments as we need to.

We are doing things like sourcing PPE. We’ve already had training with our officers on the proper use and function of PPE. At the university right now, we’re in the process of opening our offices back up after having our staff work from home. More and more people are being brought back in, so our officers have been using PPE for a while now. We’re absolutely preparing for all of those things I just mentioned, and the different possible requirements we might have as a result. We’re making contingency plans for all the scenarios we can think of. There will still be some surprises, we won’t be able to predict everything. The best we can do is try to be as prepared as best we can for the possible eventualities we can foresee.

SM: When it comes to making security decisions, has the decision-making process changed?

Davis: There are more people involved in decisions than there would normally be. Many decisions that would have been made at the department level before this are now made at the university administration, the cabinet, or in some cases the board level.

Our role in those decisions has changed in that we try to provide context, knowledge, and information so that those making the decisions can make the best possible decision given all the factors they need to consider. I can tell you, personal safety is number one. The safety of my officers, the safety of our students, our staff, and visitors—the safety of people will always be the number one priority. If there is even a question of whether or not a particular action could unduly put someone in harm’s way, we will err on the side of safety.

When you think about the duties and services that security provides, If we can’t be satisfied that the measures we put in place, whether it’s social distancing, PPE, a combination of things—such as how we spread out officers on shifts and the duties they perform, if we’re not satisfied that they’re going to be protected as best that we can protect them, that will weigh heavily on whether or not we are able to provide those duties or services. And that in turn could affect other decisions, such as the large-group activities we were talking about.

SM: When it comes to big events and large gatherings, I saw on your website that Harding is planning to hold a graduation in August. From a security standpoint, is that a dry run for how to approach large gatherings?

Davis: We will have our public safety team at the graduation service in our traditional numbers of protective personnel for fire and safety as we always do. But what that graduation ceremony is going to look like is not yet known. We don’t know the number of visitors that will be allowed or how many ceremonies we will have—traditionally our spring graduation has three ceremonies. These are questions that haven’t been completely answered yet.

The university is definitely going to take social distancing and CDC recommendations into account, and we need to finalize exactly how many graduates will be here. Once that number is firmed up, other decisions as to the number of guests allowed and how we best use the facility while protecting the health and safety of everyone who will be here. Our security officers will be using PPE, and everyone on the university side will be wearing masks. But will the graduates be required to wear them? Or visitors? Those decisions will be made at an administrative level. From a security standpoint, our role will be helping to enforce whatever guidelines the administration sets.

SM: Overall, has security changed as a result of the pandemic?

Davis: I think in the security field in general, we have to maintain a certain level of adaptability, because new events that no one has seen or conceived of happen all the time. Whether it’s a new cyber attack or new fraud tactics or ways to penetrate physical security, there are constantly new issues that come to light that we need to address.

The pandemic is just another example of where a security function that is adaptable and able to quickly adopt and enact changes will be best able to perform the duties needed.

When it comes to being adaptable, we may not be able to do something like change our staffing levels, but we can absolutely change the job we are performing as our needs shift. And we can also take advantage of other departments within the university. If there is a security need, our best approach to meet that need may be engaging with another department and putting some of the responsibility on them. An example of how departments here rely on each other is when we made the decision to move to all online classes. Various personnel from other departments helped our professors make that transition. It was a major shift, and many people stepped outside of their defined jobs to assist with it.

SM: The pandemic has had major effects on the economy. Are you anticipating that affecting the security resources you have available to do your job?

Davis: Everybody is definitely going to be tightening their belts. We see that as a nation right now, across the board, with businesses being shutdown and closed. I don’t think anyone has a good, firm grip on what the outcome will be or what the overall affect might be on enrollment at the university. I think being fiscally conservative will be the approach for a while. Budgets may not be reduced, but I think at the least we’re going to have to be very careful about any major expenditures and make sure it’s only things we absolutely need.