Located in one of the nation’s most vibrant cities, GW offers its students many unique opportunities. But this locale also presents a unique set of problems: how to protect more than 20,000 students from nearly constant threats of crime and terrorism.
University officials said they are continually looking for new ways to ensure the safety of the GW community, especially at a time when color-coded alerts can change at the drop of a dime. At the same time, they encourage students to make an active effort to ensure their own security whenever possible.
Preventing everyday crimes
According to University records, the most common crimes on campus are theft, liquor law violations and vandalism, but University Police Chief Dolores Stafford said these crimes are typical of most college campuses.
“We’re quite fortunate that the campus is in an area where we don’t have to worry too much about crimes being committed by those outside the University community,” said Stafford, a campus crime expert who is also president of the International Association of Campus Law Enforcement Administrators. “For instance, almost all of the assaults were student-on-student rather than involving someone from outside the University.”
There were eight assaults reported on Foggy Bottom’s campus in 2002, the last year for which full crime statistics are available.
While UPD is responsible for ensuring student safety during and after incidents, Stafford said the department is also committed to crime prevention.
At least six times throughout the year, UPD runs theft prevention programs. Officers will leave reminder notes for students on unprotected belongings and tags on improperly secured bicycles, suggesting bike owners lock up their wheels.
“It’s important that students remember to stay vigilant,” Stafford said. “Often (students) will start forgetting to practice proper safety precautions after the first six or eight weeks of school just because nothing happened to them. They need to remember that the reason nothing happened to them in the first place was because they were being safe, keeping an eye on their things, etc.”
One of the most important things students can do to ensure their own safety on campus, Stafford said, is to pay attention to their surroundings and use common sense about protecting their valuables.
“The key is common sense – lock your bike up, watch your valuables, don’t go out walking in the middle of the night alone,” she said.
“Also, if someone who might even possibly have a weapon asks for your wallet, don’t get in a fight with them,” she continued. “You can always replace everything in your wallet.”
Stafford also encouraged students to take advantage of the University’s 4-RIDE escort service, even when in groups. The service, which operates daily from 7 p.m. to 6 a.m., transfers students via minivan anywhere on or within two blocks of campus.
“Even though there’s safety in groups, something could always happen to a group of two or three students.” Stafford said.
UPD will also be holding information sessions for new students and parents throughout Colonial Inauguration to provide them with more information about Foggy Bottom and how to stay safe on campus.
Going beyond campus crime
While UPD is directly concerned with keeping the campus safe and secure, other offices oversee the well-being of the University during emergencies.
John Petrie serves as GW’s assistant vice president for public safety and emergency management. Brought to GW in the wake of the September 11 attacks, Petrie, a retired Naval captain, said he is focused on developing comprehensive plans for campus safety in the event of University, city and national emergencies.
Last school year, Petrie and his team organized responses to September’s Hurricane Isabel and International Monetary Fund and World Bank demonstrations in April. The University’s response to the IMF protests, Petrie said, was particularly successful considering the size of the demonstration, which drew upwards of 5,000 people.
“These were the largest IMF protests we’ve seen since 9/11, and our response achieved the greatest level of success,” Petrie said. “We worked hard with University and Metropolitan Police to ensure that no frat houses and dorms were inconvenienced and protesters had the right to express their opinions.”
Petrie noted that his office has been particularly successful at increasing the degree of communication between dozens of University departments.
At the core of this success, he said, has been the Campus Advisories Web site, www.gwu.edu/~gwalert, which contains up-to-date information about the University’s status. Last year, the site notified students of closings due to the hurricane and heavy snow. Petrie said the site is an improvement over the previous method of sending blast e-mails to the campus community.
“The campus advisory Web site has enabled us to get information about situations out to all members of the University community, which using a blast e-mail would have taken at least eight hours, in less than 15 minutes,” Petrie said.
Also instrumental in the University communications system has been the installation of public address systems on all UPD vehicles so that administrators can disseminate information to the community in the event of a power failure. The recent acquisition of Blackberry wireless e-mail devices and conference call capability by University decision-makers is expected to help increase cohesiveness during emergency situations.
These technology upgrades are intended to prevent the communications blackout that GW experienced in the aftermath of the 2001 attacks, which temporarily disabled the use of cell phones and land lines.
Petrie said his goal is to spend money on equipment intended for regular, everyday use that becomes particularly helpful during emergencies.
“I’m not looking to spend money needlessly, but to put our resources into equipment which will be consistently useful but remain reliable in times of additional need,” Petrie said. “The Blackberry messaging devices, for example, would be useful if, like during September 11, wireless voice functions became congested by overuse, while data transmission remained stable.”
University administrators, with Petrie’s help, have also run situational scenarios to help them familiarize themselves with emergency management techniques and strategies.
“We recently took (administrators) through situations, like another weather emergency, 24 times over … two and half days,” Petrie said. “Through these scenarios we were able to determine the impact the loss of power might have on situation management. The emergency management team will then work from the results of those conclusions to make plans even more comprehensive.”
In addition to facilitating better communication about emergencies and public safety, one of the first tasks Petrie completed after assuming his post in January 2002 was developing an “Incident Planning, Response, and Recovery Manual” available to all students, administrators and faculty. The guide, which is available on the Campus Alerts Web site, describes how situations are handled and outlines response contingency procedures.
“It’s important that we all remember that we’re dealing with situations that, while dangerous, have a relatively low probability of occurring,” he said.
He added that students could look forward to seeing skits and short presentations on emergency preparedness during CI and Welcome Week.