9/11: GW revamps crisis procedures after attacks

Some professors ended classes as soon as they heard about the attacks, while others kept students in class because they did not know what else to do. The GW women’s volleyball team continued their morning practice until a student ran into the Smith Center almost an hour after the Pentagon was hit, warning them about the attacks. Other students found each other in Kogan Plaza and made their way to friends’ homes in Maryland and Virginia.

University President Stephen Joel Trachtenberg was in a meeting in an annex of the Pentagon at the time of the attack and was unable to get in touch with his family or GW until the early afternoon.

Cell phones were not working and phone lines failed to transmit a dial tone by the time most GW students found out about the attacks on the Pentagon and World Trade Center. Many students said the Internet was their only form of communication for the first few hours after the attacks, as some were flooded by instant messages and e-mails from friends and family across the country.

University officials allowed faculty and staff to leave campus to go home, leaving GW short-staffed and unable to quickly communicate messages to students.

A communications breakdown

Vice President for Communications Mike Freedman said he was about to begin a meeting with other GW vice presidents concerning the upcoming IMF/World Bank meetings when he first heard about the attacks.

Freedman, who headed GW’s emergency management last fall, said the crisis team decided to cancel classes immediately after the Pentagon was hit, but encountered problems communicating the message to the campus.

He said an evacuation of the Foggy Bottom campus was never given any serious consideration, despite phone calls from parents suggesting a mass flight. He said evacuating more than 5,000 students and personnel to the Mount Vernon campus, as current fallback plans dictated, would have been logistically “chaotic.”

“The consensus was that the safest place was right here,” he said.

He said the University decided to send out mass voice mails, faxes and e-mails, but with “sluggish” response times, the University dispatched staff members to all campus buildings to inform students to return to residence halls.

“The systems didn’t work as well as we wanted them to, but they had never been tested,” Freedman said, adding that D.C. failed to notify the University about the attacks and the government television emergency broadcast system was never activated. With phone lines down, Freedman said it also took “too long” to get in touch with the Mount Vernon and
Loudoun County campuses to coordinate a response.

Freedman said the biggest crises he had planned for before September 11 were manhole covers blowing off the street or residence hall fires.

“If I had said that we needed to prepare for an aerial attack before (September 11), people would ask ‘and what about a Martian landing?'” Freedman said, noting that the continental United States had not been attacked since 1812.

Evacuations of the Marvin Center, Ross Hall and multiple residence halls because of bomb threats continued to put students in a state of flux and augmented the shock all were going through after witnessing the destruction that Tuesday morning.

However, while faculty, staff and students were initially unsure how to react, administrators and students said they were able to slow down by the mid-afternoon and decide how to proceed.

Freedman said the University decided to hold classes the next day because he “wanted the campus to regain a sense of normalcy.”

“We wanted to hold classes because there was no reason not to hold classes,” he said. “We didn’t want to leave the situation static.”

A new focus for a new time

“If good can come from bad, then some good things came out of the day,” Freedman said. He said GW officials realized they needed to put more focus on crisis planning and was the first university in the country to hire a full-time person strictly for crisis management.

After arriving at GW in January, Assistant Vice President for Public Safety and Emergency Management John Petrie said he conducted an assessment of crisis procedures.

Petrie said he traveled to New York to meet with administrators at schools close to ground zero to find out how they were addressing the security. He also met with university officials in California to learn how schools deal with crises like earthquakes.

“There were no plans already in existence at GW that weren’t good . everything that was here was already functional and useful,” Petrie said.
“But we needed to take the next step . if we are dealing with something that would affect a large portion of the campus.”

He said he focused primarily on improving crisis communication and better coordinating University department response.

A 24-page crisis plan that addresses University preparations, responses and recovery in times of crisis will be available for students to read online next week, he said.

The plan includes emergency procedures for GW departments, calling on each department to list priorities that would first be addressed in the event of any emergency.

Within the next month, he said University Police will install a public address system in all vehicles to allow the administration to communicate with students if the phone lines are jammed. UPD would park vehicles throughout campus allowing administrators to address students.

Students said they felt the University cannot be expected to plan for terrorist attacks but hoped GW would be able to better communicate with campus in emergencies.

“I felt like I was running around with my head cut off,” sophomore Kathryn Downey said. Downey said she was practicing with the volleyball team during the attacks and was informed about canceled classes through rumors.

“There is not too much the University can do in the event of another attack . but we still need to look at all options that would help students know what to do,” junior Megan Robertson said.

Trachtenberg said he believes the University handled the situation “appropriately under the circumstances” and is confident GW is better prepared for an emergency following the Petrie’s arrival implementation of new procedures.

“We have spent money and notched up our focus,” Trachtenberg said, but stated that he wanted to preserve the “openness” of the University. “I don’t think you can ever get completely prepared . the nature of our society is to be open, we don’t want to turn GW into a totalitarian place.”

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