Summer is when many colleges stage their own equivalent of the elementary-school fire drill: campus-wide emergency-preparedness exercises, complete with victims, rescuers, bewildered bystanders and an overtaxed rumor mill. The point is to test the school’s emergency procedures in a live, almost-real scenario.
Virginia Tech held one such exercise last Wednesday. The imagined emergency was a steam line explosion in the middle of the school’s architecture quad. University spokesman Mark Owczarski described the effects:
“The explosion took out campus infrastructure (power, communications, etc.). . . two people injured in the explosion . . . . dining centers and residence halls affected. . . . highly sensitive research affected (due to power loss, heating and cooling, etc) as well. The drill focused on who we’d need to reach and with what information, how quickly we could return to normal operations, and who’d be needed to make that happen. Dozens of “injects” throughout the day. . . . rumors, media calls, parent calls, etc. etc. provided the flavor.”
In short, the university sought to recreate the environment of urgency mixed with confusion that would attend an actual emergency.
That actual emergency came the very next day.
Virginia Tech went on alert for nearly six hours Thursday after some teens attending summer camp there reported a gunman loose on campus. Classes were canceled and visitors warded off.
In the end, no gunman was found, and the campus returned to normal. The incident drew enormous media coverage because the school was the site of the nation’s deadliest campus shooting to date.
Virginia Tech learned from the 2007 incident and revamped its emergency procedures, along with many other universities, responding to criticism that officials had been slow to alert the campus community to the threat at hand.
This time, according to our coverage of the incident, “more than 48,000 students and campus personnel received a text message alert about the situation, and an email alert was sent out to every student and school employee.”
Did the university do a better job handling a crisis one day after a disaster drill?
Owczarski: “While the scenarios were different, what helped us on Thursday (my opinion) was, the relationships forged on Wednesday were a big help on Thursday. Plus, tips, best practices, good ideas and the like were fresh in our minds. . . . all of which had to help the next day.”