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
DoD facilities include quickly making decisions and disseminating information, having multiple lines of communication, and conveying a consistent message over all of them from a centralized source.
Multiple communications methods must be used to get in touch with necessary people because some methods may not work, and some people may not be reached by certain channels, Miasnik said.
"So by having multiple channels, you really have a much better chance of reaching the people you need," he said. "The second important lesson is being able to centralize the management of the emergency communication, because one consequence of having three or four or five different channels of communication might be that you need different systems to manage each one of them. And that's not good, because every minute really counts, and you want to have a system that can really communicate and leverage all of these channels of communication at once with a single activation."
In addition to single activation, single management of the system is critical so a consistent message is sent through each channel.
"For example, if you communicate over four or five different channels, but the message you are sending over each is not exactly the same, you may be doing more damage than good," Miasnik said. "You may be confusing people about what to do."
This type of communication must be second nature; the procedures must be defined for each type of event before it happens, and then practiced, Miasnik said.
"You have to figure out, if this happens, this is what I do: I communicate with the following people," he said. "What are the messages? Who are we communicating with? Who is allowed to communicate? All of that has to be predefined as part of emergency procedures."
After the Virginia Tech tragedy, colleges across the nation examined what technology and procedures could be implemented to help officials confront such an event.
In Illinois, Gov. Rod Blagojevich announced college campus security initiatives that would create a campus security task force and distribute more than 300 Motorola STARCOM21 radios on three college campuses. The radios are expected to be in place by the fall 2007 semester, and campus security personnel will be trained to use them.
California State University, Fresno, is meeting with vendors to discuss the viability of a cell phone message system that would text volunteers. University officials are studying procedures and policies at Virginia Tech and visiting the campus to learn from the tragedy.
The University of California at Berkeley recently introduced a system called People Locator, a Web-based application that lets students, faculty and staff securely log in, report their locations and leave messages during an emergency.
Prior to the Virginia Tech incident, Hampton University in Virginia implemented a prototype security system called Response Information Folder System (RIFS), developed by Alion. RIFS allows emergency responders and school officials to quickly access 3-D and 2-D models, panoramic images and glean other facts about the facility. The system has GIS capability that helps integrate facts about an event with a geographic context.
RIFS has no emergency warning component, but possible expansion includes emergency alerting via text messaging and e-mail, according to Teresa Walker, assistant provost for technology and director of the Academic Technology Mall at Hampton University.
During the spring, Hampton also implemented an Internet filtering and monitoring application by 8e6 Technologies called Threat Analysis Reporter. "It allows us to pull categories that we want to monitor for inappropriate use on the Internet or block altogether," Walker said. "We are able to immediately gather data on any individual who visits sites deemed as inappropriate or attempts to access sites that we have blocked."
Such categories include pornography, hate and discrimination, extremist and terrorist
sites, and weapons and arms sites, she said, adding that students are aware of this and understand it's university policy.
As for upgrading campus security, Miasnik advises campuses to look around and see what others are doing, and to take advantage of existing infrastructure.
"Colleges have networks. They've invested tremendous amounts of money in networks pretty much everywhere on campus," he said. "There are wired networks; wireless networks; everybody has a laptop; there are lab kiosks. Leverage what you have in place. For a relatively small investment, you can turn every laptop, every kiosk or even a phone into an alerting device. The investment is usually somewhere in the range of 20 to 30 bucks per student per year.
"My No. 1 recommendation is to learn from others," Miasnik continued. "You can't reinvent the wheel here. There are organizations that have been dealing with this for decades."