Russ Thomas

Russ Thomas stands near one of the eight new sirens on campus that have voice capability and battery back-up.

March 13, 2014

Russ Thomas brings passion, expertise to all-hazards role

With this week’s weather, hope definitely springs eternal that we can finally put our shovels away. As anxious as we are for the long-awaited change in seasons, we also know how unpredictable the weather can be in our region. Remember last month’s tornado warning?

As that line of storms approached, I knew Russ Thomas would be in constant communication with colleagues at the National Weather Service and the city of Carbondale. As the all-hazards preparedness officer and crime prevention unit coordinator with our Department of Public Safety, Russ plays a central role in ensuring we are as prepared as possible for any emergency.

He was directly involved in the recent expansion of our siren system. The eight new sirens are part of our multi-layer emergency communications system that also includes text messaging, e-mails, and announcements on the university’s home page. We also have about 400 employees who volunteer as members of Building Emergency Response Teams in more than 100 campus buildings.

Training and coordinating those teams are among Russ’ many responsibilities when it comes to campus safety, which is our top priority. His focus also includes changes to federal and state laws and best practices in emergency management.

That expertise is essential to ensuring that our all-hazards plan – which we adopted long before it was mandated by a 2008 state law – is up to date. Russ also helps coordinate our All-Hazards Response Team, which includes representatives from 12 key departments and advises me.

That team has been conducting annual drills – and sometimes more than that – for quite a few years. Those exercises may take place around a table or out in the field, and the scenarios range from a multi-agency response to a train derailment to a natural gas leak on campus. We also use the tragedies that have occurred on other campuses, such as Virginia Tech in 2007 and Northern Illinois University in 2008, to improve our preparedness and response capabilities.

Twenty of Russ’ 33 years in law enforcement have been spent with our police department. Russ has been in the all-hazards role since 2009, but he has been involved with emergency preparedness since it was known as civil defense. Each time I talk with Russ, his passion for campus safety is evident.

“I appreciate being part of a team effort focused on maintaining a safe environment for the university community and our guests,” he said. “Hopefully, we’ve done everything imaginable so people don’t worry. But if something does happen, I believe we are prepared. The field of emergency management is always changing, and we are constantly learning from others’ experiences.”

Over the past year, Russ has coordinated SIU’s voluntary participation in an Illinois Emergency Management Agency pilot program designed to further enhance campus safety, preparedness and response efforts. He expects that we will receive the agency’s formal endorsement as a “Ready to Respond Campus” in the very near future.

“This is important, because it is a stamp of approval from outside the university that tells students, parents, faculty and staff that we are doing everything we know to make this a safe environment,” Russ said.

I appreciate Russ’ expertise, leadership, and dedication to always looking for new ways to keep the university community safe.