The Virginia Tech tragedy has prompted universities across the nation to review their procedures for handling campus emergencies. American University also has been reviewing its procedures; this examination will be ongoing. While every campus is different and the crisis scenarios numerous, lessons can be learned from each emergency that occurs and new strategies implemented based on knowledge gained.
Here are some initial observations from discussions held on our own campus.
As we inventory our campus needs and build on these initial discussions and others to follow, we will upgrade, update, and adjust our emergency procedures to improve their effectiveness. While some changes will be easy to implement and others require additional study and expenditure – two key items are important for everyone at AU to know:
The best number to call in an emergency to report an incident or for immediate assistance is Public Safety at 202-885-3636.
We will make our emergency procedures “one click away” from the home page for easier access; and to enable anyone to ask a specific question about campus emergency procedures (during a non-emergency situation), we are creating a voice mailbox (202-885-2020) to enable callers to leave a message and receive a response.
A lesson from the recent tragedy is that knowledge of our emergency preparedness cannot ebb; it must be widely known, easily accessible, and up-to-date. We will continue to strive to make that happen for the AU community.
Preparedness Planning& Campus Awareness
After 9/11, American University began a concerted effort to augment its emergency planning, protocols, and response. Led by a cross campus project team, the basic procedures were established, contact information compiled, and tasks assigned. The project team, under the direction of the Office of Risk Management and Safety Services, continues to meet on a monthly basis for information sharing and updating. The result is that AU has a substantial document (accessed via the web address above) that is thorough, current, reviewed and tested. As recently as last month, a half-day simulation was conducted with university principals to review a scenario and the steps to be taken as the “simulated crisis” unfolded.
Beyond simulations, however, in recent years we have had numerous opportunities to test our preparedness – with a bomb scare two days after 9/11 that required the evacuation of the entire campus; the anthrax scare of 2002 that prompted new procedures for mail delivery and threat awareness; and the D.C. metro area sniper incident of 2002 that had all on heightened alert for weeks.
In the wake of Virginia Tech, it’s prudent to remind all that we have a plan and procedures that have been tested, and the plan can be easily accessed. We will work to ensure that awareness is spread to students, faculty and staff.
Our campus location and configuration is distinctive -- because the 80 acre main campus and locus of most activity is in an exclusive neighborhood; the seven acre Tenley campus is in a confined area one mile away; and we have some administrative functions in five free standing buildings within a mile of campus. The small size of our main campus and its controlled access points enable some protocols and procedures to work more effectively than on a large sprawling campus that is hundreds of acres in size with multiple entry and exit points. To assist the community with reporting incidents, the campus emergency blue light phones have been upgraded, and by fall semester, security cameras will be operational at strategic points.
AU’s Public Safety office is led and staffed by professionals. It has a good working relationship with the D.C. Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) for ongoing support and emergency rapid response. MPD’s 2nd District headquarters (only one mile away) and the presence of Homeland Security (across the street) facilitates a rapid response to any campus incident. AU’s Public Safety officers are sworn police officers trained to respond to different types of emergencies and incidents based on federal national incident management standards (NIMS). Using these standards and the university’s emergency plan, our officers are trained to stabilize an emergency until MPD assistance arrives to team with AU’s officers. AU’s public safety officers receive eight weeks of training, (which exceeds the “required” training by seven weeks). After training, Public Safety officers are certified by MPD as University Police Officers. This combination of training, certification, and familiarity provides additional assurance of a standardized response during a campus crisis.
The MPD District Commander and AU’s Director of Public Safety frequently meet to review and revise emergency planning issues. Finally, AU Public Safety is part of the Joint Operations Command Center structure, a network that coordinates response and assistance by various police authorities when a large scale crisis unfolds in Washington, D.C.
While circumstances will dictate the most effective method of communication in specific situations, our emergency message dissemination capabilities include e-mail, campus voice mail, Web-posting, emergency call-in line, news media notification, and word-of-mouth and phone tree calls made by pre-appointed emergency response team staff members to assigned building marshals and contacts. Much national discussion has focused on other notification methods– including text messaging and loudspeakers. Implementing a text message system will require the gathering (and updating) of cell phone numbers for students, faculty and staff, which we do not currently have. We are looking into this option.
As we assess the feasibility of campus public address system, our campus is sufficiently small and staffed adequately by public safety officers so that “portable loudspeakers” can be used – via public safety squad cars or bullhorns. Other ideas and initiatives will be considered to augment our communications.
Student Information Needs
With the student population in constant flux -- with graduation, new student enrollments, transfers, travel and such -- it is not surprising that some students might not know of AU’s emergency procedures and how to become familiar with them. Therefore, we will work to better inform our students (and parents) at least annually of AU’s emergency procedures. Accessing the procedures online can be helpful, but having a shortened form that outlines basics and is posted in obvious locations (such as the backs of residence hall and classroom doors) has also been recommended. Emergency situations will differ, but certain fundamentals can be condensed and communicated. We will produce condensed versions of key information to make it accessible and readable, and will do this as soon as possible.
Faculty Information Needs
One reality from Virginia Tech was that a classroom can be a setting for a campus emergency, so it is crucial to better convey our protocols and procedures to our teaching faculty. Working with the Provost’s office and the individual schools, we will improve this aspect of preparedness so that our faculty members are better informed of situations they may confront and know the resources and options available through written materials, workshops and training sessions for current and new faculty members (as part of orientation). Meanwhile, two immediate actions are requested of all teaching faculty:
All faculty are asked to please take your cell phones to your classes, with emergency phone numbers pre-programmed.
Similar to situations that faculty may confront, staff members may be present when an emergency occurs, by virtue of the public contact dimension of their jobs. We will work to identify staff members whose responsibilities might require them to respond to emergency situations; we will strengthen our efforts to ensure they feel prepared, know the procedures to implement, have the resources needed, and understand the options they have. New staff members will become aware of our emergency management procedures as part of new employee orientation.
An expanding national discussion is how to identify individuals whose behaviors are threatening to themselves or others, and how to distinguish their actions from the normal range of human behaviors. Individuals have rights to express themselves and behave in ways that may seem unusual to some, and their rights must be respected. When behaviors become a danger to themselves or others, then faculty, staff, or students must feel both empowered (and comfortable) to take appropriate action. When to act, what to do, and who to call, are parts of this dynamic that we will better define and convey to campus.
If you observe behavior or actions you consider troubling or threatening, please contact appropriate individuals based on the immediacy and the context of the situation. Student behavior of concern should be brought to the attention of an academic advisor, an associate dean, the Office of the Dean of Students, or Public Safety. Faculty or staff behavior of concern can be reported to the responsible supervisor, department chair, dean, the Office of Human Resources or Public Safety. In case of an actual emergency, contact Public Safety immediately, at 202-885-3636.
Like other outstanding institutions across the nation, American University is committed to openness, unfettered debate, freedom of expression, and the academic principles that we embrace. At the same time, we have a profound responsibility to protect the safety of our campus community so that individuals do not feel threatened. The balance is not a simple one, but I know I can depend on this community to work diligently to achieve it.
If you have suggestions or concerns about emergency preparedness, I encourage you to share them with me by writing to firstname.lastname@example.org or by calling 202-885-2020.
April 27, 2007 3:46 PM
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