THE CALL CAME IN AT 9:22 P.M. ON THURSDAY, APRIL 2, FROM THE Radford University (Va.) EMS team, an all-student, volunteer rescue squad, that there had been a fatal shooting just one block from campus. Dennie Templeton, who directs the school’s Office of Emergency Preparedness, remembers the time exactly, because within 15 minutes he had set up an emergency operations center (EOC) to interact with the outside responders who were fast arriving at the 9,500-student school.
“After the shooting, we thought the gunman was proceeding across campus,” Templeton recalls, a concern that brought out the Virginia State Police, as well as law enforcement officers and other emergency responders from the city of Radford, Montgomery County, and even from Virginia Tech, just seven miles down the road. “Within 30 to 35 minutes, we had SWAT teams here,” says Templeton. And by that time, “LCD monitors all over were flashing ‘Shelter in Place’ commands,” RU ’s term for a campus lockdown.
For more than six hours, the university’s EOC jointly directed search operations and communications with an EOC run by the city police, who finally arrested the suspected shooter at 3:40 a.m. away from campus. The positive outcome was aided and abetted by an active relationship over the past two years between RU’s emergency office and the emergency responders in the surrounding communities.
That increased cooperation, say Templeton and emergency and police officials at other universities, has expanded in the aftermath of the deadly shootings at Virginia Tech. “It’s obvious the incident at Virginia Tech was a huge wake-up call to everybody,” notes Peter Fiedler, vice president for administrative services at Boston University, which for years has worked closely with Boston’s police and emergency agencies and with whom they conducted a live exercise involving a shooter on the BU campus last August.
In the Virginia Tech aftermath, more than a dozen states, from Missouri and Minnesota to New Jersey and North Carolina, created task forces to study campus security, and one unanimous finding was the importance of communicating, planning, and practicing with the police, fire, EMT, and homeland security departments in their vicinities.
Another finding: Such regular contact isn’t always the case. The North Carolina task force found, for instance, that just 39 percent of schools surveyed had a mutual aid agreement with local emergency agencies, and 35 percent had jointly conducted tabletop or live emergency exercises.
Radford officials heard the wake-up call loud and clear months before the Virginia Tech tragedy, says Templeton, who has become a leading advocate for university-community partnerships. “We began from scratch putting an emergency response program on campus.”
RU established its Emergency Preparedness Office in January 2007, and the administrators began taking classes in NIMS (National Incident Management System), a set of standards created by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security after the 9/11 attacks. NIMS focuses on the principles, terminology, and organizational practices that allow responders from different jurisdictions, departments, and sectors (public and private) to stay on the same page and understand each other when handling a variety of emergencies.
Templeton also forged contacts with Radford’s police and fire departments, county and regional emergency response units, and local hospitals. He emphasizes that the threats facing today’s colleges and universities range from natural to manmade disasters. “In our case, there’s a major railroad nearby on which freight trains carry gas, and there’s also a military arsenal not far away,” he explains.
Last October, RU and the city launched “RU Ready,” a live exercise that simulated the rupturing of a railroad car carrying chlorine gas. The mock emergency meant setting up an EOC and evacuating five RU buildings and almost 10,000 students, 75 of whom were treated by EMS workers. Some were taken to area hospitals.
“It showed us that there will always be things that go wrong,” Templeton says of the lessons learned. “Some of our cell calls were dropped because of all the traffic, and we needed to do a quicker job evacuating students from buildings.” RU officials also realized they needed to have simple things in place, such as representatives at the hospitals to help notify students’ parents and let hospital administrators know who were Radford students.
Templeton adds that RU’s staff also benefited from watching and working with people who respond to emergencies for a living. “We learned a lot by observing them—how to operate an EOC, how to communicate back and forth. And I can’t overestimate how much the drill we went through helped with the shooting incident in April—in pulling these law enforcement groups together and establishing the EOC and the communications network. We knew who they were, and they knew where to come to.”
Don Goodman, the city of Radford’s police chief and an RU alumnus, agrees that preparing together for emergencies has made a difference. “My experience over the years is that anytime you can train together, you’ve ironed out some of the bumps that can come along,” he says. “And anytime you know somebody’s name, it’s easier to work with him.”
Goodman adds that schools in rural areas may especially need an ongoing alliance with outside authorities. He notes that his department has a formal mutual aid agreement with RU. When the murder was first called in, he continues, all three city police officers were out on other calls, so their three counterparts at RU picked up the slack.
At some large urban institutions, such as Boston University and the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, cooperation with the local police and other agencies has become a way of life. The large police forces at both schools are licensed by their respective cities, carry weapons, and have the same arrest and investigation authority as city officers. They often share the same patrol areas with city police. “We work together all the time, not just for big incidents but for day-to-day crime prevention and public safety,” says Steve Morash, who heads BU’s Office of Emergency Planning and Response and arrived in 2005 after a 30-year career in emergency services for the city of Boston. “Our police chief is on a first-name basis with the captains of the surrounding precincts. And over the past four years, he’s worked with the FBI, the Massachusetts State Police, and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, so all of these people understand the university community they may be policing.”
“We involve the local authorities in what we’re doing on campus,” says Peter Fiedler, vice president for administrative services, adding that events as benign as runners from the Boston Marathon passing by campus or a concert taking place at the school’s hockey arena lay the groundwork for more serious teamwork down the line.
Lately, Morash and his emergency preparedness team have been running tabletop simulations and live exercises with their Boston cohorts. During the on-campus exercise last August, in which an actor played a gunman who had killed one student, threatened another, and was holed up in the student union, the Boston police secured the building’s perimeter while the BU police went inside.
With the completion of BU’s National Emerging Infectious Disease Laboratory on the horizon, university officials will conduct more exercises with a wide range of outside healthcare, emergency, and hazardous materials personnel. “It’s been said a million times: You don’t want to be introducing yourself at the scene of an actual incident,” concludes Morash.
The University of Pennsylvania, meanwhile, has brought a high-tech component to its crime-fighting collaboration with the Philadelphia police department. Besides patrolling many of the same areas, UP’s Division of Public Safety receives a daily download from the Philadelphia police department that covers any crime in the 18th district, in which the 269-acre school is located.
“We’re very cognizant that crime in adjoining neighborhoods has a big impact on how we do business here,” explains Mitchell Yanak, director of PennComm, the university’s emergency response office. For more than five years, his office has been using a crime analysis and mapping system from GeoDecisions that lets staff track crimes in a wide area around the campus.
For instance, Yanak says, data on a rash of auto thefts combined with information from PPD on nearby residents with criminal backgrounds could lead the two departments to focus on certain halfway houses in the area. “This has been taking off like a rocket to the moon,” says Yanak. “The mapping allows our investigators to become more analytical and to ask the proper questions.”
“We deploy security and cameras on the basis of what we see in the mapping,” says Maureen Rush, Penn’s vice president for public safety, noting that the $160,000 investment so far is paying off. “We’ve experienced a large decrease in crimes against people.” In 2008, there was a 38 percent decrease from the previous year in such crimes, plus a slight decrease in property crimes, at the university.
Other institutions are also leveraging new technologies to strengthen ties with outside police and emergency agencies. Kent State University (Ohio) recently piloted a three-month, internet-based program that provides administrators and emergency responders with satellite images of the campus, blueprints of buildings, and real-time locations of emergency personnel. Middle Tennessee State University, vulnerable to hurricanes and tornados alike, has used RAVE Wireless Technology to connect with local Red Cross officials.
At Bryant University (R.I.), the Information Services department has bolstered the Public Safety department—as well as the emergency operations of local and state agencies—by connecting a wide range of communications devices via the internet, using the Cisco Internet Protocol Interoperability and Collaboration System (IPICS), which the school had already deployed for its business functions. The project won a 2008 innovation award from the Collaborative Public Safety Network.
“It ties all communication devices—cellphones, land lines, computers, 400 megahertz and 800 megahertz radios, and $50 Wal-Mart walkie-talkies—to the common denominator of an IP network,” says Rich Siedzik, Bryant’s director of computer and telecommunication services. The Smithfield fire department used to have to call each assisting department separately for aid, but “now with a push of a mouse connected to a PC, they reach everyone.”
Bryant has also become communications central for emergency responders handling incidents all over the state and beyond, says Art Gloster, vice president of information services. “It took on a life of its own and started up in other counties in Connecticut and Massachusetts,” he says. “It’s a safety net, and we’re extending it with the additional communities we can bring onto it.”
This February, the University of North Texas launched its own state-of-the-art emergency operations center, aimed at letting its students get hands-on experience and potentially serving as a training facility for designing and running exercises for outside emergency responders—including city management personnel, school districts, and utility districts, notes EOC Coordinator Eliot Jennings. He adds that the EOC can also serve as a backup facility to the local area in real emergencies and beta test new emergency software programs. Better safe than sorry.
Ron Schachter is a Boston-based freelance writer.