Oct. 5, 2007 -- Since the mid-1980s, the University of Virginia has participated in regional disaster-preparation drills, alongside local and state fire, rescue and law enforcement representatives. The goal is not only to test responses to simulated conditions, but also to build relationships in case a real disaster occurs.
"We usually work on what we believe is reasonable to prepare for," said Michael Gibson, U.Va.'s chief of police. "That level of reasonable behaviors has crept up."
It took another leap on April 16, when a student gunman took the lives of 32 students and faculty members at Virginia Tech before turning the gun on himself. In the wake of those deadly events and the subsequent report of the governor's Virginia Tech Review Panel, the University has reassessed its emergency preparedness efforts.
On Friday, the University's top emergency preparedness leaders reported the results of that assessment to the Board of Visitors. In general, their message was not one of transformation, but of sharpened focus. Long before April — in some cases, efforts date back decades — emergency response structures and processes were either already in place or well under way, they reported.
In response, the board passed a resolution supporting the University's efforts and saying that it "exhorts and expects continued review and assessment."
The University launched several new initiatives in direct response to the Virginia Tech tragedy.
Door hardware is being replaced around Grounds; classrooms are receiving doors that can be locked securely from the inside, while many entrance and corridor doors are being fitted with flat “panic bars” — the bars that one uses to push open a door outward — that cannot be chained shut, as was the case at Virginia Tech.
The University also is nearing an agreement to purchase a siren and public-address system to be deployed throughout Grounds. Police will be able to activate all of the sirens or just a few as circumstances require, Gibson said.
University Police are planning a drill on active-shooter procedures, and an active-shooter scenario may also be included in the next annual disaster-response exercise, Gibson said.
The Virginia Tech shootings also added impetus to some security measures that were already under way.
Prior to the event at Virginia Tech, the University had been in the process of hiring a director for a new Office of Emergency Preparedness. That culminated in August with the hiring of Marjorie L. Sidebottom. The office is now the focal point for emergency preparedness efforts.
UVA Alerts, the University's new text-message alert system, was being planned as early as last December, as was the deployment of several networked, high-definition, LCD television screens around Grounds that can display urgent messages in the event of an emergency. Officials acknowledged that the Virginia Tech shootings accelerated the implementation of UVA Alerts.
Also, U.Va. is one year into its participation in the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s “Disaster-Resistant Universities” grant program, which includes working with an outside consultant to develop a comprehensive risk assessment of University facilities. The University's Disaster Resistant University Steering Committee is expected to make additional recommendations for mitigating potential hazards, including security hazards.
The Virginia Tech report also reinforced the need for several measures the University already had in place.
U.Va. formulated its first Critical Incident Management Plan in the months after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, and officials have updated it at least annually since. The plan lays out the University’s responses to any number of incidents, both natural and man-made. A portion of U.Va.’s plan for responding to violent incidents was reprinted as an appendix to the Virginia Tech report.
The University has for years assembled “threat assessment teams” — including representatives of law enforcement, human resources, student and academic affairs, legal counsel and mental health experts — to review cases of troubling behavior on the part of students and employees. The teams are empowered to share information on a “need to know” basis. In the wake of the shootings, officials are reaching out to faculty with information about how to report such troubling behavior, including the circulation of a memo to all faculty at the beginning of the fall semester. Additionally, the University is seeking to expand its training efforts for responding to troubled students, said Patricia M. Lampkin, vice president and chief student affairs officer.
The University adheres to the National Incident Management System, which, among other things, gives the chief of police the authority to manage emergencies as needed without seeking the input of administrators. Gibson can order portions of Grounds to be sealed off, for instance, and can activate the University’s new text-message alert system on his own authority.
There is a great deal of cooperation between the University and other local emergency-response teams, forged in the disaster drills and in several other efforts, including a regional emergency operations center that is a model in the state and a joint 911 emergency communications center.
"Local officials feel a responsibility to the University of Virginia, and we feel a responsibility to the community," said Susan Harris, assistant to Leonard W. Sandridge, the University's executive vice president and chief operating officer.
There are also specific measures in place. U.Va. also has 150 to 200 separate security cameras deployed throughout Grounds, helping monitor the University’s 500-plus structures. Student housing access is restricted to holders of card keys.
Still, security threats will continue to mount and new types of challenges will emerge, requiring new responses. Emergency preparedness requires constant vigilance, said Sidebottom, the University’s emergency preparedness director.
“You never think these plans are finished,” she said. “If you ever think you’re finished, you’re in trouble.”