Are you ready to respond?

Safety is the primary objective of those responsible for athletic fields and facilities: safety of the players, spectators and staff. They must not only have an emergency preparedness plan in place for general use situations, but also for natural and man-made disasters. While these plans are specific to the entity, each reflects key elements of structure, flexibility and communication.

The Gulfport sports complex staff needed to assess the damage after Hurricane Katrina and again after the contractors that had moved in for post-storm work left.
Photo courtesy of the city of Gulfport.

General use issues

Ken Edwards has developed a field maintenance program that includes a checklist of safety issues crews complete before leaving a site. As sports turf manager for Gulfport, Miss., he’s in charge of three sports complexes with a total of 22 fields. “The field users for the sports complexes are all private leagues. The city field-use documents require them to assume responsibility for safety during that use and to have their own safety plans and insurance programs. They’re required to contact the city immediately if they observe a safety problem with the fields or facilities. I’m that contact. I make the safety inspection and coordinate any action needed to resolve a problem,” he says.

William N. Blood, assistant athletic director of facilities & operations for Florida Gulf Coast University (FGCU) in Fort Myers, Fla., is in charge of all outdoor and indoor sports venues. Certified athletic trainers are on-site for regularly scheduled athletic events, practices, games, tournaments and summer camps. He says, “The number of trainers for each event is determined by the ratio we’ve established per number of participants. For emergencies other than athlete-connected, my full-time staff and I are all first aid and CPR trained and certified and so are our campus police. There’s also a fire station with a trained EMS unit within minutes of our campus.”

Signage was one of the forms of communication used to alert the public to potential safety issues following Hurricane Katrina.
Photo courtesy of the city of Gulfport.

Along with athlete safety programs, Bakersfield, Calif., has plans in place for the safety of those in general use situations, notes Darin Budak, CSFM, CPRP, parks superintendent. All the parks and recreation staff are trained in CPR and first aid.

Natural disasters

For FGCU and Gulfport, hurricanes are a recurring issue. The hurricane season starts in June and runs through November. “We start preparing by January, right after the activity predictions list comes out, fine-tuning our programs based, in part, on the anticipated number of occurrences,” says Edwards.

Gulfport has 20 prepared plans for emergency management, each focused on the specific departments. “The plan for our sports complexes differs greatly from the one for the city’s parks. Our plan contains the facility checklist covering all the things we’d need to do if a named hurricane is coming right at us, with activation steps beginning about 24 hours out,” says Edwards.

FGCU has developed a university-wide continuation of operations plan (COOP). Within that plan, each department has created a “black box,” containing contact lists and other vital data required to remain operational from an off-campus location should evacuation be required. Blood says, “It’s strictly department data. Advance warnings with hurricanes allow individuals time to prepare mobile versions of individual work in progress.”

As part of the COOP, the Alico Arena was built to code as a shelter for hurricanes up to Category 3, where winds can reach 130 miles per hour. Blood is the shelter manager and thus designated as essential personnel if the shelter is to be used. Levels of activation vary depending on the severity of the storm. Blood says, “Lee County Emergency Management will alert us if they may need to activate Tier II, opening the arena to the public. If so, the Red Cross and city police department will be involved with more trained and certified personnel on-site. As a designated host center, we could be activated when hurricane activity on the Atlantic side of the state channels evacuees to us. We generally have 24 to 48 hours advance notice of either activation.”

For Bakersfield, natural emergency situations vary from storms to earthquakes to fires, often with little or no advance notice. The Bakersfield EOP (emergency operations plan) is based on general principles and actions to be instituted at different levels depending on the type and scope of emergency aid required. Bakersfield sets up an emergency operations center (EOC), which the directors of the city and all participating partners report to, working together to coordinate a united effort.

FGCU’s Alico Arena was built to code as a shelter for Hurricanes up to Category 3 with winds up to 130 miles per hour.
Photo courtesy of Florida Gulf Coast University.

“There’s a clear path for information flow, up and down the chain, through the directors, assistant directors, superintendents, area supervisors and staff members. All new employees go through the orientation program, which includes review of the EOP pertaining to their department and identification of the designated staff member to whom they would report. The plan allows all of us to focus on our responsibilities, putting our expertise to use where it will be most effective. The flexibility we’ve built in is essential to adapt to changing circumstances,” Budak says.

One main responsibility of the parks and recreation department is logistics. Community centers become shelter sites based on their location, and public schools are required to be open for emergency use. The parks are made available for tents and emergency shelters to coordinate equipment and supplies. “As the largest division after police or fire, we have hundreds of employees in the field so we play a very active role. We’re the first responder for first aid. We have light equipment operators and those with CDLs that could handle anything from a dump truck to a bus. We have working arrangements with the school district, American Red Cross, Salvation Army, Community Action Partnership of Kern County and VOID [Volunteers Active in Disasters]. I work directly with the identified point person for each group to coordinate whatever action is needed,” Budak says.


Blood has a professional staff of five, augmented with 40 to 50 event staff members, made up of about 98 percent FGCU students. He conducts training for the event staff, covering the COOP plan and details for implementation.

Bakersfield supervisors have all been through the three-day national incident command training, followed by periodic refresher sessions. It’s preparation for any incident deemed a federal emergency, where a complex paper trail is involved, documenting the use of staff and supplies.

Bakersfield periodically conducts extensive mock training scenarios with incidents such as an earthquake or a leak-producing crack in the Lake Isabella Dam. “These are treated as seriously as a real event, with mock victims and all personnel that would be participating involved. They’re a big expense, but an excellent resource to pinpoint any breakdowns in communications or operations,” Budak says.

Implementation during a large-scale emergency involves news media alerts and mobilization of the police force to spread the message within affected areas. Budak says, “We also have access to the Reverse 911 system working through the public information officer to phone homes in targeted areas with detailed information, such as the need to evacuate and the location of emergency stations.”

The widespread impact of Hurricane Katrina was hands-on training for the city of Gulfport beyond the scope of any previous emergency planning. The level of devastation shut down power sources, destroyed shelter and food support sites, eliminated transportation options and wiped out communication systems. Edwards says, “All the resources we relied on during previous emergencies were gone. We had no way to contact our personnel or know their status.”

Contractor debris-handling equipment moved onto the fields at the Goldin SportsPlex, though they had no authorization to do so.
Photo courtesy of the city of Gulfport.

The lessons of Katrina have been incorporated into the current emergency preparedness plans based on three key principles: anticipate, coordinate and verify. “We’ve anticipated needs at all levels and identified the resources, including sites, organizations and individuals, to supply them. Coordination includes establishing the security and communication systems to implement the plan properly. When we’d cleaned up the Goldin and Gulfport sports complexes after Katrina, we opened their parking areas as staging sites for contractors. They went far beyond that, turning our fields into tent camps and debris dump sites. It took legal action to remove them. Our sports complexes will no longer be opened for any post-storm capacity. Verification utilizes checklists for periodic inspection of identified disaster sites, including checks of backup systems and rotation of supplies to ensure all remain operational,” Edwards says.

Review and revision

Following damage assessments and filing reports with local and federal agencies, all of these facilities conduct a post-incident review, analyzing actions taken seeking to improve the processes.

Each of Gulfport’s departments reviews their emergency management plans annually. At FGCU, Blood, the director and chief of police review COOP before students return to campus each fall. Blood says, “We’re a young facility with ongoing construction that changes logistics. We have each department review and make updates to their segment, then do our final review and send the revised version to Lee County Emergency Management.”

Bakersfield’s EOP changes with inputs not only from departments within the city, but also from the partnering associations, the county, the state and federal agencies, such as Homeland Security. It’s available in both print and online versions. Budak says, “Any department head can review either version and submit changes for specifics such as personnel or procedures. Regular review is essential. Following 9/11, we’ve seen changes in federal and state law as to who is involved at what levels and in what capacity, and reporting depth has increased.”

All three agree the most important aspect of emergency preparedness is the communication. Blood says, “If you’re not communicating even the best plan will fail.”

The author is a contributing editor for SportsField Management.