Reality Is a Harsh Taskmaster

On April 16, 2007 at about 1030 AM, I was nervously sitting in Boston's Logan Airport waiting for a plane to take me BWI airport in Baltimore, then on to the University of Maryland where I was scheduled to teach an ICS class. The air traffic was delayed since we had just had one of the worst Nor'easter's in recent history with wind gusts over 60 miles per hour and three days of rain. As I absolutely, positively hate to fly, I was just as happy to sit with my coffee and watch the news and read a book until the winds (which I was sure were going to push us out to the sea where we would be swallowed out by a rift from the Bermuda Triangle) died down. Shortly thereafter, the first reports of the shootings at Virginia Tech started to appear on screen. I knew it was going to be bad, but I never thought it was going to be as bad as it turned out to be that day.

As the death total rose, we finally boarded our plane for the flight and I was out of the communication loop for about two hours. Upon my arrival I met up with the other members of my training group and we found out just how horrific the final toll was for the community of Virginia Tech. We were all shocked and trying to figure out how this would affect the class for the next three days. As a group we decided that we would not comment on the incident, except as it may have pertained to the class and the emergency procedures we were trying to teach. For the next three days we taught the class under a cloud. We were filmed by a local news station and our comments were sought out. As we refused to comment on the situation at Virginia Tech, our efforts went by the board pretty quickly. It was not a problem for the media; they had plenty of other people more than willing to get their fifteen minutes of fame and talk on camera. Not surprisingly, most of them talked but really did not say anything of substance, just blathered the same old mantra on gun control, lack of communication, campus security, and what everybody did wrong. To the credit of class members, they redoubled their efforts to master the class in an effort do something constructive and try to learn ways to help prepare for and mitigate possible future incidents. On the last day as we parted, everyone was tense about returning to their departments as the world we had woke up to on Monday was radically different than the one we were returning to on Friday.

Reassessing and Planning

When I returned to work I met with my boss and got filled in on the developments that had occurred while I was away. After our response as a community to 9/11, which was basically to do nothing except wait for direction from state and federal government, I was surprised and pleased by both the tenor and intensity of the response. Maybe it was because of a change in leadership, but there was a vast difference in the way things were being done. There was not a lot of panic or confusion on the part of senior management, but a very real determination to find solutions and do what had to be done to make things safe for our community. It was refreshing to see that it was not just lip service and posturing, either. The leadership was taking some very positive steps to look into what needed to be done and how we were going to do it. So far in the past weeks, we have managed to arrange for updating our reactive shooter training, upgraded our access to shoulder weapons, and forged new communication efforts with our local and state police departments. All of these, I guess you would expect to happen and would be sort of a knee-jerk reaction. Maybe so, but what has impressed me so far is the community response to other things, such as a show of support for our department and our efforts. It has included a review of our community emergency operation plan and the recognition that issues needed to be addressed. It has lead to a commitment to insure that all members of the community involved in managing crisis situations will get training in ICS systems. It has identified areas of concern over communication issues for all facets of emergency response, and is making an effort to improve them with physical improvements, or policy and procedures changes in reporting efforts. It has determined that an updated threat and vulnerability assessment needs to be done and a schedule for future updating established. All very real positive steps done without the rancor and agonizing procedure of consultation and contemplation that often plagues college communities and their decision-making processes.

All too often in crisis events, there is confusion, panic, a rush to judgment, and then gridlock in our communities. At this point we seem to have avoided the first three issues. It is hopeful that we can avoid the gridlock and continue with our momentum in dealing with these issues. In a prior article from January, I wrote that I often wondered where people thought kids like the shooter in Virginia Tech went after high school, and said the clock was ticking--tick, tock, tick tock. Unfortunately my peers and I who espoused the idea have been proven right, and they may be coming to our communities. Fortunately, it seems that most campus communities seem to be taking positive steps to address the issues that have arisen from the incident. Maybe, just maybe, after Columbine, 9/11, and now Virginia Tech, it has sunken in that it can happen here.