Ready, or Not?

Review of colleges' emergency plans suggests relatively few have key elements in place to respond to campus shootings.
August 5, 2009

As institutions like Virginia Tech, Northern Illinois University and Louisiana Technical College, one by one, had multiple people killed in campus shootings, the general consensus was that such incidents could happen anywhere. "It's very important to be aware that a college community is like any other -- it isn't a protected oasis," one campus security expert said after the Northern Illinois shooting.

While colleges can do little if anything to stop emergencies like these from unfolding, emergency preparedness experts and federal agencies generally agree on a set of steps that postsecondary and other institutions should take to be ready to respond to crises. A study published in the latest issue of Radiologic Technology suggests, though, that the emergency preparedness plans at a significant proportion of colleges and universities lack some of the key elements seen as necessary to prepare, prevent, respond and recover from "mass casualty events."

In the study, Tammy Curtis, an assistant professor of radiologic sciences at Northwestern State University, in Louisiana, set out in May 2008 to examine the publicly available emergency preparedness plans of 40 two-year and four-year colleges that have accredited programs in her field, to see how they aligned with the guidelines and recommendations for educational institutions made by the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Education Department's Emergency Response and Crisis Management Technical Assistance Center. Of the 40, eight did not have their emergency plans on their Web sites, and four others were password protected.

Of the 28 that were accessible, the following are the number and percentage that had protocols or policies related to the key components identified by the relevant federal agencies as necessary for the most to guard against the most serious of events -- those that can result in multiple deaths:

Evacuation Plan 11 29%
Reporting Suspicious Activity/Person 9 32
Biological Agents 6 21
Crisis Management Team 5 18
Active Shooter 5 18
Campus Firearm Policies 5 18
Suspicious Packages 4 14
Lockdown 4 14
Hostage 3 10
Intruder 2 7
Psychological Distress 2 7
Terrorist 2 7

The plans were much likelier, the study found, to have basic emergency procedures and provisions, related to such things as fire safety (68 percent), bomb threats (46 percent), hazardous chemicals (43 percent) and severe weather (39 percent).

Curtis is transparent about the limitations of her study: First, her review was done a year ago, and it is likely that more institutions may have upgraded their emergency plans since then, as the February 2008 shootings at Northern Illinois and Louisiana Technical College's Baton Rouge campus seemed to stimulate more aggressive responses, she said. In addition, Curtis acknowledges that institutions may have additional policies or procedures that are not contained in their publicly posted emergency plans.

But "if a college has an emergency, and we want to know what's going on, one of the first places people look is online," she said. "Picture the mother thinking, 'My daughter's at this college, I can't get hold of them. Where can I find out what they expect to do?' It should be accessible online, and I found in my pilot study, at least, that it's often not."

The Web review also does not make clear, though, whether colleges are actually following through on what their plans say they should be doing, in terms of such things as holding emergency drills, Curtis said.

Although her study found a mixed picture about the extent of colleges' publicly visible emergency preparation, at least, Curtis said she was heartened by the trends as she perceives them. "More and more colleges are now modeling their approaches to the recommendations that were made to Virginia Tech," she said. "We're headed headed in the right direction."


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