Colleges Learn Crisis Management Strategies From Federal Models

Virginia Tech shooting prompts universities nationally to examine their ability to respond to such a catastrophe.

by Lauren R. Bosselait / December 2, 2011
The University of South Carolina examined its emergency preparedness and response plans after the 2007 Virginia Tech shooting. Photo courtesy of Flickr/Jay8085 Flickr/Jay8085

The shooting rampage that took 32 lives at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University on April 16, 2007, is considered the deadliest (at peacetime) by a single gunman in U.S. history. The incident prompted universities nationally to examine their ability to respond to such a catastrophe.

After the shooting, a panel appointed by Virginia’s then-Gov. Tim Kaine assembled to review the incident. The panel reviewed the way the Virginia Tech administration handled the events leading up to the shooting, communication during the early part of the day and various details surrounding the event. The panel also examined gun control laws, gaps in mental health-care services and privacy laws.

As a result of the scrutiny faced by the state and Virginia Tech and its administrators, numerous policies and practices have been reviewed and amended since the shooting. This article focuses on FEMA and the DHS’ National Response Framework (NRF) as models of crisis management when responding to tragedy in higher education. 

The NRF defines the principles, roles and structures that organize how the nation responds to a disaster. It also describes how communities, tribes, states, the federal government, private sector and nongovernmental partners work together to coordinate national response. The NRF describes specific authorities and best practices for managing incidents and builds upon the National Incident Management System, which provides a template for managing incidents.

After the Virginia Tech shootings, the most significant changes at three large public research institutions examined for this article — the University of Pittsburgh (Pitt), James Madison University (JMU) and the University of South Carolina (USC) — happened in the preparedness and response phases. Although mitigation and recovery are just as important to emergency management, most of the resources at Pitt, JMU and USC have focused on preparedness and response.

Always Thinking Long Term

At Pitt, an emergency preparedness website was created to disseminate information in the quickest way possible. The website includes an active threat incident community response checklist that the campus community is to be familiar with in case of an emergency. 

Long-term risk management is not new to JMU. There has always been internal communication between the police department, student affairs and the academic departments. Immediately after the Virginia Tech tragedy, the Division of Student Affairs at JMU had a desktop brochure printed for all staff that includes information about emergency response and emergency notification as well as a brief summary of the comprehensive safety plan. Another change following the Virginia Tech shootings was the creation of the Behavioral Assessment Team, which strives to minimize risk to the community and plans for long-term activities. Two other key forms of mitigation at JMU are institutional insurance and university lawyers — resources used to protect the university from lawsuits and long-term damages. 

USC has several measures in place to alleviate potential harm to students, staff and faculty. Examples of these measures include educating faculty and staff on active shooter response and the Behavioral Intervention Team. The increased awareness and use of the intervention team is also a long-term activity aimed to reduce the number of potentially at-risk students. The intervention team published a folder with emergency contact information, the team’s purpose and how to report troubling student behavior. 

Updating Communication

To facilitate effective emergency response, Pitt has increased training for first responders, creating and revising emergency plans, updating communication plans, ensuring there’s a stocked command center, completing tabletop exercises and purchasing an emergency notification system. The police department requires all of its officers to complete active shooter training, whereas in the past only select officers were trained. Pitt also revised its emergency response guidelines in March 2009 and continually posts updates on its emergency preparedness site. In addition, the Division of Student Affairs created a communication center that would be activated during a campuswide emergency. 

Following the Virginia Tech shootings, JMU planned and allocated sufficient resources to
prepare for an emergency through a text- and voice-messaging system, updating the siren and horn system on campus, and training building coordinators more effectively. The police department facilitated effective preparedness by training the building coordinators on active shooter scenarios and the comprehensive safety plan. The police department also sent several officers to specialized schools to learn enhanced techniques for addressing active shooter scenarios. The police department conducts routine training and practical exercises both on campus and in cooperation with surrounding jurisdictions to respond regionally.

Prior to the tragedy at Virginia Tech, USC already had an appropriate emergency management plan and an emergency notification system had been funded and ordered. Now every police officer is trained on active shooter response and tabletop exercises have been completed with constituents from the campus community. Similarly training has been implemented for the emergency management team, which comprises 45 members from campus and is arranged according to the Incident Command System, a component of National Incident Management System — a model established as a result of the Virginia Tech shootings. 

The First Responders

Some overlap exists within the preparedness and response phases of Pitt’s emergency management. Response refers to what happens immediately before, during and after a tragedy. Over the last two years, practices that Pitt developed include emergency voicemails, text messages and alerts on the website. 

If there were an active shooter crisis at JMU, the campus police would be the first responders and the assessment team would assemble and decide what information must be shared and who needs to be contacted. 

Another example of a response used at JMU following the Virginia Tech shooting is the emergency telephone protocol via the Emergency Response and Recovery Team, a committee that consists of a representative from each division (Student Affairs, Academic Affairs, etc.). If an emergency is identified, representatives in each department are contacted using the phone calling tree system until everyone is notified.  

Lastly the Emergency Response and Recovery Team will assemble to assess the emergency and determine what additional contact to make, establish communication channels and keep all parties informed. 

In an active shooter situation, the first responders at USC are the campus police. Within seconds of an emergency, a police officer will be dispatched to the scene. At the scene, law enforcement will assemble an incident command post and take the lead from an identified incident commander. An emergency operations center will be established in a secure location to support the individuals at the scene. Law enforcement will make the necessary decisions and then as needed call upon different functional units of the Incident Command System.

USC is developing response plans, training individuals on the Incident Command System and developing recovery plans. Other emergencies like the pandemic flu, however, have caused the university to create continuity of operations plans, which force departments to identify the principle nature of the department’s operations, the succession of leadership, communication systems, mitigation strategies, critical functions, processes, staffing and emergency access to information and systems. The Executive Policy Group — which includes the university president, secretary to the Board of Trustees, general counsel and all of the university vice presidents — would convene after a tragic event and begin an after-action report to identify areas for improvement, as well as obtaining lessons learned information from participants about all phases of the emergency management framework.

Lauren R. Bosselait is the coordinator for residential curricular initiatives at the University of South Carolina.      


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