Responsibility in a Crisis
During the first few weeks of the semester I have faced some new challenges in the classroom. First came the bomb threat that led to an evacuation of our campus at the University of Texas at Austin (story). Then I had a student emergency in the middle of class, requiring me to call 911 and deal with EMS. Both incidents made me realize that I don’t necessarily feel equipped to handle the many types of emergencies that a professor might face in the classroom.
I was just finishing class at 9:50 am on Friday, September 14, when a student looked up at me with a panicked expression and said there was a text message about evacuating, and just then we heard the loudspeaker calling out the alert across campus. My first thought was of the shooter who had made his way across campus a couple of years ago, causing a lockdown. I asked the student if the message said to evacuate or to hold in place –- the word was to evacuate. I told all of my students to head off campus to the nearest city street.
Unfortunately the text messaging system was only getting messages out sporadically, and the loudspeaker didn’t go off again. We were left on the street wondering if we would get the "all clear" sooner vs. later. Many students came up to me, asking what was going on –- I could only guess that it was a bomb threat, but there were no police officers or police vehicles on the street we were on to give any indication of what we were supposed to do. After waiting around for nearly an hour I decided to walk home, since I only lived about a mile away. Once there, I was able to get the most information from Twitter, which indicated that there had been a bomb threat. We finally got the "all clear" around noon, and I returned to campus to retrieve my personal items that I had left in my office.
In the aftermath, I realized what a strong sense of responsibility I had felt for my students as they exited the classroom – and for those students who came up to me as we waited on the street, asking if I was a professor and if I had any further information. The university handled the situation relatively well, although many questions were raised about the timing of the evacuation. Many had wished that the loudspeaker system had been used to provide more information, since cell phones stopped receiving text messages with all the traffic on the networks. However, I was struck by how little I felt I knew about how to handle the situation.
Even though I had been in administration and knew much of the protocol for a shooter, or severe weather, this situation was new for me and apparently for many others involved. I was surprised that there was no one (at least on the street I was on) directing people away from campus – perhaps this is something that faculty members should have done? Were there particular places that we should go? I’m not sure I would even know the gathering place for the building where my office is located if there was a fire drill, let alone in any of the other buildings where I teach. Many people didn’t evacuate, and some who did went back on to campus before we got the all clear. I still wonder – what was my responsibility in this situation? What role should faculty play, when police are spread out, inspecting buildings, etc.?
These questions came back to me again, when a more localized crisis occurred in my classroom, again on a Friday. In this case, it was just one student, and I immediately knew to call 911 and ask for EMS. While I was on the line with the operator she asked me if I knew where to find a defibrillator in the building. Again, I felt at a loss -- I’m not sure we keep defibrillators on campus, and even if we did, I wouldn’t know where to go to find one in that particular building, since it’s not where my office is located. I was once again struck by the fact that faculty members often know little about emergency procedures in the buildings that we use for classes, particularly in a large university like ours.
Although both of these emergencies ended well, I’m still concerned that faculty members (even those like myself with administrative experience) may not be fully equipped to handle all aspects of an emergency. I’m not sure what the answer is – we did add signs in every class room that explains what to do in case of a lockdown, or weather emergency, but we clearly need more on other types of emergencies. So I wonder what is the experience of faculty at other campuses in these types of situations, and what should the responsibility of faculty be in managing these types of situations?