In the hours after hijacked planes hit the World Trade Center and Pentagon two years ago, GW was a campus in confusion, as more than 20,000 students, faculty and staff tried in vain to communicate with friends and family and receive up-to-date information from the University.
The attacks created an information vacuum as voicemails, faxes and e-mails sent by the University failed to reach most of the GW community. The situation was compounded by inoperable campus phone lines and cell phones. Many professors kept students in class because they received no instructions from University officials; the GW women’s volleyball team practiced for an hour after the Pentagon was hit until a student ran into the Smith Center to tell them about the attacks.
But in the two years since the attacks, University officials said they have improved communications with city officials and set up emergency procedures that they hope will help them respond to any future crises.
“The University’s preparations before 9/11 were appropriate to the world we lived in before 9/11,” said John Petrie, assistant vice president for public safety and emergency management. “And its preparations now are appropriate to the world we live in now.”
GW hired Petrie in December 2001 to oversee the University’s crisis strategy. Petrie, a former naval captain, has coordinated emergency procedures with the University’s different departments and put in place a communication system designed to keep the entire GW community informed in case of crisis.
A campus incident manual released in August 2002 outlines evacuation procedures for different types of incidents. Each University department has also been instructed to provide Petrie’s office with a plan outlining its preparations and responses to an emergency. It also must include provisions on how the department will conduct operations after an incident. The department plans will not be made available to students, Petrie said.
“We make them available to only those that have to use them,” he said.
Petrie said while the University conducts drills for “decision-makers,” a drill for the entire community has not been planned.
“Our intention right now is to get people ready, individually and locally, and not for 25,000 people at once,” he said.
Last year, Petrie, along with the office of the vice president of communications, helped create a Web alert system on GW’s homepage, which can be updated in minutes. During the attacks, a “blast e-mail” was sent out to the entire GW community, but many people did not receive it because the mass mailing delayed Internet traffic on GW’s server.
Within two months, GW’s Internet server will have two different operating locations – one in the Academic Center and the other in Loudoun, Va., where the University Aviation Institute is located. The multiple locations will make it less likely that GW’s server will go down in a crisis, Petrie said.
Petrie said the campus communications system, which includes telephone and computer systems, are being supported by backup generators and should not falter in an attack. He also said the city is giving the University a satellite phone, which doesn’t rely on telephone landlines.
He said a command center where vice presidents and associate vice presidents can meet in an emergency will be fully equipped by October. Petrie declined to divulge the center’s location but said it is hooked up to an emergency generator.
GW and other D.C. universities share a seat in the D.C Emergency Management Agency’s command center. During an emergency, representatives meet at the center to get information and instructions. Petrie said the city is in the process of training liaison officers who would represent D.C. universities individually during a crisis.
University Police Chief Dolores Stafford said GW has improved its communication with Metropolitan Police and noted that D.C. universities also share a seat in MPD’s emergency command center.
All of UPD’s 28 vehicles have been outfitted with a speaker system that would allow the University to broadcast emergency messages to the entire campus from UPD headquarters, Stafford said.
Stafford said UPD has conducted seven tests in the past year to teach officers how to use the system.
UPD officers will also undergo basic weapons of mass destruction scenario training in the next few months, which is made possible by a $2 million federal grant to train campus police officers around the nation, she said.
Stafford added that UPD is also looking into purchasing a bomb-sniffing dog. She said the dog would allow UPD to conduct bomb-detection operations without the assistance of MPD, which has been unable to cope with the volume of requests for its dogs.
Despite measures taken to ensure the GW community stays informed during a crisis, emergencies can take many different forms, and University officials are always being briefed on possible scenarios.
Petrie said the University will always be updating and revising its emergency procedures “because, every day, the University changes.”
“It’s important to recognize that we’re doing planning we hope we never use,” he said.