Emergency helicopters, a SWAT team and armed state police officers descended on Hamilton College Tuesday in what seemed like a full-blown emergency complete with gunmen, a hostage, and victims carried away on stretchers. No one was hurt -- and, in fact, nothing really happened.
In collaboration with the New York State Police, Hamilton conducted a full-scale emergency preparedness drill. The simulated hostage situation was meant to test the responses of Hamilton’s administration and campus security, as well as the procedures of about 100 officers from the NYSP, the Utica SWAT team and police departments from several suburbs and the county.
The impetus for the mock emergency was a new stipulation in the Clery Act (formally, the Jeanne Clery Disclosure of Campus Security Policy and Campus Crime Statistics Act) requiring colleges and universities to test their emergency response systems once a year. Additionally, the New York police agency is required to test its own emergency response systems twice a year.
“It seemed like a very symbiotic, cost-effective way of having a significant emergency-testing situation,” said Vige Barrie, director of media relations at Hamilton.
The three-hour drill began with a shooter and ended with a simulated detonated bomb in the auditorium. More than 50 members of the campus community volunteered to play victims. Several police officers were “severely injured,” and one was “killed,” along with a student. The drill also tested the college's ability to handle a broken PA system, send victims to multiple hospitals, and create a plan for arriving parents.
“We tend to think it’s not going to happen in our backyard,” said Capt. Francis Coots, of the state police. “But the chance of a disgruntled employee or a disgruntled student going in there with a gun is a real possibility.”
Hamilton’s plan is unusual among colleges and universities in the United States, Barrie said. Other police departments have used college grounds to conduct drills, but without the presence of campus security. Conversely, campus security departments have tested their emergency services without the aid of local police. Coots and Francis Manfredo, Hamilton’s director of campus safety, designed this drill as the first to bring the two response systems together and create a practical response scenario for the entire area.
“The drill has provided Hamilton College with the opportunity to understand what emergency responders will need from us and what we can expect from them,” Manfredo said. He added that having a solely campus-based response “would definitely have some value, but it just wouldn’t have the kind of value we want.” If a significant incident were to occur on campus, the college’s Incident Management Team would be in charge of the rest of the college, dealing with students, moving classrooms, etc. The IMT comprises 25 people from areas of campus such as the office of the dean of students, the health center, media relations and campus security. Local emergency providers would tend to the incident itself.
“I think what all of us got out of this was the fact that it’s a partnership, and it’s something that we were all doing, both academia and law enforcement, in order to make the campus safer,” Coots said. “I think they realized that in the event that it was real, they can count on us.”
The Clery Act was amended in 2008 in response to the Virginia Tech shootings, and the changes went into effect July 1, 2010. Now, campus police departments are required to create and publicize their emergency response and evacuation plans, test the plans on an annual basis -- announced or unannounced -- and document the results of the drill.
Though the act does not require that the testing resemble a full-blown emergency, the 1,800-person college took the charge seriously and began planning the drill in January, developing tools such as flash drives containing crisis communication plans and building schematics, and a system to contact students in an emergency. The local and county governments were informed of the event, along with all law enforcement agencies, contractors and university employees.
Hamilton’s drill had been in the works for months, but Barrie said she was still anxious before it happened. “We know that we’re not perfect, and we’ll have something to learn,” she said.
As a result of the drill, college officials can now develop a “to-do list” based on gaps they discovered in the emergency plan. For example, aerial maps of the campus and areas designated for media trucks would be helpful, Barrie said. She added that the college and the state police use different codes to identify the buildings, so a common system would facilitate communication during a real emergency.
Prior to the Clery Act’s changes, Hamilton’s safety drills were limited to table-top exercises, where theoretical strategies were devised and discussed. Seminars are also a common way of bolstering emergency preparedness.
Manfredo said that in the future he hopes to continue having live drills, and that working in conjunction with local emergency providers is important. “The only good way to prepare is to practice, so the more you practice," he said, "the more prepared you’ll be."