Preventing Seung-Hui Cho from opening fire at two different locations on the Virginia Tech campus in Blacksburg, Va. - taking 32 lives before his own - would have been difficult. And it would have been just as difficult on most college campuses for a few reasons.

"Because of the open nature of institutions of higher education and because we are dealing with the human psychology," said Adam Garcia, director of University Police Services at the University of Nevada, Reno. "In less than a decade, we have gone from shooting situations in K-12 schools to terrorism to an adult lone wolf, who are extremely difficult to identify in advance."

When it comes to violent crime, college campuses have long been shrouded in a false sense of security. That mindset, however, must change to mitigate the effects of another tragedy - or prevent one altogether.

Tragedies like Columbine and Virginia Tech have pushed campuses toward evaluating their security practices and communication procedures, and the aftermath provides insight as to what took place. The outcome will undoubtedly lead to new measures that make college campuses safer.

Garcia said an event like the one that took place at Virginia Tech would overwhelm just about any community and law enforcement organization. But new issues came to light, and communities should acknowledge that college campuses aren't immune to crime and should be prepared.

"For too long, universities and colleges were seen as safe havens from crime," Garcia said. "Communities must face the reality that acts of violence and crime can and do occur anywhere."

  

Before Chaos Ensues

Prevention is difficult, but to gain some semblance of control over the situation, communication is important. As was evident at Virginia Tech, it's not easy, and significant planning is involved.

"The challenge of communicating with everybody on campus, as well as people outside of campus who have a relationship to what's going on, is a big challenge, and is really one of the more crucial elements to emergency management," said Guy Miasnik, president and CEO of AtHoc, a firm that has helped secure facilities at the Department of Defense (DoD) for years.

Virginia Tech officials were questioned after the shootings as to why the campus wasn't shut down during the two-hour lull between shootings, and why everyone on campus wasn't notified after the first round of shootings in which two people were killed in a dorm room.

"When people don't know what's happening, that's what creates chaos and creates frustration, and potentially creates a tremendous amount of danger," Miasnik said.

Virginia Tech's emergency communications system included e-mail, as opposed to text messaging, which could have been helpful since students are accustomed to texting and used it to communicate amongst themselves during the shootings.

Sources said using multiple means of communications during such an event is critical. "Assuming a single channel will work when you need it isn't sufficient," Miasnik said.

As it does after these types of events, the University of Nevada is taking a new look at its readiness after the Virginia Tech disaster.

"We are evaluating our current state of readiness from a law enforcement perspective, as well as a community perspective," Garcia said. "Redundant lines of communication to faculty, staff and students are being explored."

Communications methods being examined include cell phones and landline message "dumps," which are mass communications sent to people who sign up to receive emergency alerts; text messages; Web site improvements; message boards; campus LCD monitors; and reverse 911, said Garcia. The school is also considering establishing an emergency critical management group composed of five to seven high-level university officials.

 

Multiple Means of Communicating

Some lessons learned from years of securing

Jim McKay  |  Associate editor