The 3 A.M. Phone Call

June 29, 2009

BALTIMORE -- Every college administrator dreads the 3 a.m. phone call. Whether it's a natural disaster, a student in danger, or a tragedy, the type of event that forces someone out of bed and into action can test a college. However, these events also bring out the best practices and often times set the standard for split-second decision-making, college housing officers say.

Housing officers – who are responsible for keeping students safe – are usually on the front lines when it comes to dealing with these types of emergencies, so it is only fitting that the subject came up here Sunday at the annual meeting of the American College and University Housing Officers - International.

John Buck, associate dean of students at Webster University, in Saint Louis, spoke about his conclusions on some of the best practices for dealing with life-or-death events. Buck’s report was the result of 12 interviews with college housing officers who were noted for handling critical events at their colleges well – from shootings and housing staff suicides to hurricane responses and deadly meningitis threats. Among his conclusions, he said that these housing officers put more emphasis on intuitive decision-making than protocols.

“We don’t look for a manual, we don’t look for protocol, we know what to do and we get it done,” Buck said.

These models of best practice fulfill what is known as "satisfycing" – picking a couple of key options bound by the amount of time available and deciding between them. This means that not all options are considered, but with luck the best possible decision comes to light.

Several themes were consistent across all 12 case studies that came out of Buck’s research. First, these officers stressed the importance of confidence in their experience over that of detailed policies. Having the protocols in the backs of their minds made it easier to take procedures into account -- without having to refer to a book -- when making split-second decisions. In his presentation, Buck quoted a housing officer who dealt with an active shooter on campus: “I can know every protocol in the back of my head, but it’s my experience, the things that I’ve learned that work, and ability to look around, know what my resources are and how to utilize them. That’s what I used.”

Buck added: “It never happens exactly as you plan it. Everyone has protocols and that probably helps you learn in the moment what to do, but it’s more about being able to compare to previous experience. If you used protocols early in your career, how much does that linger? You might be able to do it because it’s internalized.”

Second, these administrators were able to rely on relationships, trusting their staffs to help handle the issues along with other parties like local law enforcement, counseling services, and superiors on campus. If other politics were at play, it became harder to deal with the critical issue most efficiently, Buck said.

Along the same lines, Buck explained a third theme that the housing officers took into account: managing up the chain of command. This involved sending signals to top administrators that they should stay out of the issue as much as possible and let the housing officers take charge. Buck quoted the housing officer who dealt with a staff suicide, saying that, “sometimes when you bring in the vice president or other associate or assistant vice presidents, they start tripping over each other, and we didn’t need that. That’s happened before.”

Buck also posed the question of whether housing officers’ crisis responses fit with others who deal with critical emergencies on a daily basis, such as firefighters and nurses. He concluded that in some respects, housing officers do make decisions in much the same instinctual manner. However, there is a limit to the comparison, Buck said, since trained emergency technicians deal with more specific issues. By necessity, he said, housing officers must be “generalists” so that they can dynamically handle any issue that arises. But intuitive responses that work well are the result of years of experience. Training with protocols and practicing with fellow staff in case of emergency serve to make the housing officers sharper and better prepared, so that if the 3 a.m. call arrives, they are ready to spring into action.

Before Disaster Strikes

Having to handle an emergency situation is never optimal. In another session here on Sunday, Peter Bell, manager of residential operations for multiple campuses of Charles Sturt University, in Australia, explained methods of noticing and getting help for people at risk of suicide. Bell said that one of the key aspects of suicide prevention is confronting those who show signs of being at risk. “Many people don’t conceive of the possibility – they say that person is too popular, too active, just don’t recognize it,” Bell said. “They want to talk about it but don’t know how to do it.”

Only through proactive intervention, he added, can we “get people out of the river and put them back on the bank.”

Bell has toured Australia and the United States training people on how to recognize the signs. In addition to speaking with housing officers and others who deal with college housing, he has trained maintenance staff, janitorial staff, and financial officers, all of whom aren't normally thought of as student mental health officials, to look for suicidal tendencies. “We need to cast this web over our students and connect them with other people in the community,” Bell said. “They see a student that is struggling, a cleaner sees someone who is struggling. We need to share that information confidentially to save people’s lives.”

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