Are we ever really safe from each other, from an insider, from one of our own? Colleges exist to educate people, and they must be open to their own students. Protecting all members of the college community from one of their own who "snaps" and decides to terrorize from the inside is next to impossible. One could easily bring a dozen Glock 19 pistols onto a college campus undetected inside a flat-top guitar case. A number of shots could be fired before anyone familiar with a crisis response plan could respond.
The same might be true for businesses and government agencies were it not for metal detectors and controlled access points. But colleges don’t have either. So, short of identifying college campuses as the most vulnerable sites in America, the issue becomes one of early detection of troubled students. As a school administrator of 14 years, I can attest to the notion that many students appear troubled at one time or another in their development. That doesn’t make them killers. I’d find it more difficult to weed out the potentially troubled employees in most corporations or government agencies. Why does it surprise me that the first six recommendations of the State University of New York Chancellor’s Task Force on Critical Incident Management (May 1, 2007) pertain to students with mental health issues? The first recommendation begins, "Given the growing number of students with mental health issues on college campuses…"
Those of us with expertise in crisis management know that an incident happens most often before crisis management begins. Ed Devlin discusses crisis management simply and thoroughly in his book, "Crisis Management Planning and Execution."
Ed says, "… the term ‘crisis management’ could best be defined as ‘special measures taken to solve problems caused by a crisis.’"
If Ed is correct, and he usually is, colleges, like other organizations, must focus on the response to an incident in addition to doing what they can to predict or prevent an incident.
This is where partnerships with community responders and business continuity professionals can help. Disaster recovery and business continuity planners in the private sector, along with emergency responders in the public sector, have experience in forming and executing crisis management teams. Sometimes called incident management teams, these response groups are often trained in crisis communication, incident management, and disaster response. Much of their training and experience can be of great value to college and university leaders who are gearing up their emergency plans following the unfortunate Virginia Tech incident. There is expertise available on emergency plan design, incident management, crisis response team formation, emergency operations centers, the Incident Command System, and rapid notification systems. Most colleges are located close to businesses or government emergency response agencies where relevant information and experience is available. There may also be assistance with drills and exercises to help colleges improve their plans. There are also a number of consulting services available.
PPBI believes that partnerships have incredible value, and support to colleges on matters of incident response and management may be an excellent partnership opportunity. Since many DRJ readers are from the private sector, PPBI encourages you to reach out to colleges and universities to partner on crisis response efforts. Contact the college administration, particularly the president, to offer to partner. PPBI offers training courses in NIMS ICS for business and industry that can be tailored to the college setting, and a course in building partnerships (both in San Diego at Fall World 2007). This fall, PPBI will open both courses to participant questions about crisis management partnerships between colleges and others, both private and public.
Ed Devlin includes a quote from President John F. Kennedy in his book which we like at PPBI:
"When written in Chinese, the word ‘crisis’ is composed of two characters: one represents danger and the other represents opportunity."
We believe the dangerous crisis at Virginia Tech has presented an opportunity for all of us to help to make our colleges safer.
Dr. Tom Phelan teaches emergency management courses at Onondaga Community College, Empire State College, and at the graduate level at Elmira College. He is president of Strategic Teaching Associates, Inc.
"Appeared in DRJ's Summer 2007 Issue"