Joining Forces: Faced with Threats from Crime to Natural Disasters-And Having Learned Lessons from the Virginia Tech Shootings Two Years Ago-Campus Security and Emergency Officials Are Building Stronger Relationships with Their Local and State Counterparts

By Schachter, Ron | University Business, June 2009 | Go to article overview

Joining Forces: Faced with Threats from Crime to Natural Disasters-And Having Learned Lessons from the Virginia Tech Shootings Two Years Ago-Campus Security and Emergency Officials Are Building Stronger Relationships with Their Local and State Counterparts


Schachter, Ron, University Business


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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.

RU Ready

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. …

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