College and local first responders go far beyond tabletop emergency exercise
A child is abducted from a local middle school. The abductor flees to a local college campus, where he crashes into another car resulting in the death of two students. He runs into a wooded area with his hostage. A manhunt begins, an employee is shot, and additional people are taken hostage inside an academic building.
These events were all part of a well-scripted drill, not an actual tragedy. Nevertheless, anxiety ran high.
The exercise, created to test the preparedness of Hamilton College’s crisis management team and local and New York state emergency response agencies, took seven months to plan. By undertaking a live drill, as opposed to a tabletop exercise, participants became familiar with each other in an emergency situation, formed working relationships for the future, and tested written plans.
Emergency responders and the college’s crisis management team practiced working together using the Incident Command System, a component of the National Incident Management System. The New York State Police (NYSP), New York State Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Services, Central Oneida County Volunteer Ambulance Corps (COCVAC), and the Clinton Fire Department all took part in the exercise, which began at 8 a.m. and lasted five hours.
“We do as we train but to make training meaningful, we have to have established relationships beforehand,” says New York State Police Captain Francis Coots. “Hamilton College has made it a priority that relationships be developed between the college and public safety entities. Relationships are formed at every level of the college from the Office of the President through each member of the crisis management team.”
Some may question the lengths to which Hamilton went to create as realistic a situation as possible.
Vehicles were staged to depict a serious two-car collision; NYSP helicopters were used for air support; volunteers used makeup to appear critically injured; and Mercy Flight arrived to transport victims to area hospitals. The college’s outdoor warning and reverse 911 systems were used throughout the exercise.
The sensory experience of helicopter rotors, the sight and sounds of bleeding victims, and the wail of sirens created a rush of adrenaline that easily convinced participants the crisis was real.
“These exercises allow us to identify where policies and practices have failed and where improvements can be made,” says Steve Dziura, chief and director of operations for COCVAC.
Meredith Harper Bonham, chair of Hamilton’s emergency response team, says the exercise has revealed areas in which changes need to be made. “The sense of urgency we experienced has reinforced our appreciation for the speed and calm with which we will need to respond in possible real crises,” she says.
“We make routine decisions every day, but we tend to operate more collegially and by consensus on campus,” she adds. “These drills taught us to think differently in a crisis situation. There isn’t always time to ask for everyone’s input, however helpful that might be.”
The crisis management team also gained a good understanding of resources the institution may need to provide during an incident and how accessible those may be in an emergency situation. Information pertaining to the college and the safety of its students, faculty, and staff is, of course, paramount. But the team has learned that information on building access, floor plans, utilities controls, as well as access to food and water for responding personnel must also be considered.
“An exercise played out on paper doesn’t convey the same immediacy of demands,” says Michael Debraggio, the college’s assistant vice president of communication.
A college’s first exercise shouldn’t be a full-scale incident involving numerous law enforcement, fire, and emergency medical agencies. Starting with a single resource, such as law enforcement, and building from there would be wise. Solid relationships, decisiveness, and an understanding of what will be requested of the college and what it can provide are just a few of the many reasons to conduct an exercise.
The bottom line is that you play how you practice. If you practice on a regular basis, the emergency responders and the institution you serve will benefit from your efforts.
Fran Manfredo, a retired policeman and fireman, is director of campus safety at Hamilton College in New York.