In response to heightened anxieties about campus safety at GW in the wake of the Virginia Tech massacre, officials have said the University’s emergency management plans are adequate and not in need of an overhaul.
After Sept. 11, administrators examined the school’s preparedness for catastrophic incidents occurring on or near campus. Staff in the Office of Public Safety and Emergency Management set out to develop policies and procedures that would keep GW community members safe, as well as keep the institution running in times of danger. Since its inception in Sept. 2002, GW’s “Incident Manual” has been revised 174 times, officials said.
John Petrie, assistant vice president for Public Safety and Emergency Management, said GW’s senior leadership met Monday and Tuesday to discuss implications of the Virginia Tech tragedy. He said current plans will stay in place and don’t need sweeping reexamination after Monday’s mass shootings.
“We’ve had methodologies in place that would serve us (well) … It doesn’t mean we won’t look for new ways to make this better, but when something happens you look at what you have available and what you need,” Petrie said.
A former Navy captain who was in the service for more than three decades, Petrie came to the University in December 2001 – three months after the Pentagon was hit and chaos swept GW. He said some staff and faculty members work with his office to undergo emergency preparedness drills several times each year.
One of the pillars of the school’s plan is quick, effective communication during a crisis, Petrie said.
At Virginia Tech, about two hours elapsed between the first shooting of at least two people and a blast e-mail administrators sent out.
Through a multi-tiered strategy for conveying critical information immediately, Petrie said he hopes community members will have “trust” in officials to maximize safety. Faculty and staff members also work with his office to undergo emergency preparedness drills each year.
“The last thing we want is for people to be living here in fear,” he said.
A staple of GW’s communication strategy is the GW Campus Advisories Web page, at www.gwu.edu/~gwalert. The site has the most up-to-date information about what to do during disasters.
To notify faculty, staff and students of information on Campus Advisories and to direct them to the site, mass e-mails are used, Petrie said. These can take upwards of two hours before all the messages are sent.
But Petrie said a faster method of communication is available. GW community members can get advisories sent within minutes from a free text message service called “Alert D.C.,” which the city government offers. Administrators can send GW-specific messages to subscribers’ cell phones and e-mail addresses within a couple of minutes.
Only about 3,500 people have signed up for this service, but Petrie said, “there can easily be 40 or 50,000.”
The University Police Department fleet of 29 vehicles supports loud speakers that can broadcast a message from police headquarters or from Petrie. During an emergency, the vehicles would be driven to pre-assigned spots throughout Foggy Bottom, so a single message could be heard across campus simultaneously.
Petrie said it is critical to understand the “shelter in place” – meaning stay where you are – procedure because it keeps people away from the unknown. “In my time in the Navy, we never abandoned the ship until it was
Joe Barbera, co-director of the GW Institute for Crisis, Disaster and Risk Management, said the University’s “shelter in place” policy can prevent the type of high-volume shooting seen at Virginia Tech. He added that the University is much more prepared for crises than it has been in its past.
“I do think that Mr. Petrie has been working hard to move this University forward from where it was in an unprepared fashion before 9/11,” Barbera said.
Others, though, have been more skeptical about the school’s protocol for handling emergencies.
John Banzhaf, a GW public interest law professor, said the University’s plans are at best not well-communicated, and at worst wholly inadequate.
Having been a faculty member since the 1960s, Banzhaf said he should know what to do in the event of a terrorist attack or other crisis, but doesn’t. He said he wasn’t aware of the Incident Manual or the notifications that Petrie said his office sent out in 2002.
“I don’t recall ever seeing it. I certainly don’t recall any meetings about it. I don’t recall any practice or drills or anything like that,” said Banzhaf, who is best known for suing the fast-food and tobacco industries. “And it may be that I’m atypical (among faculty, but) … my guess is that they’d be as clueless as I am.”
If GW community members are unsure of emergency plans now, going to computer to view the Campus Advisories site or referring to the Incident Manual during a crisis would be too late, Banzhaf said.
“One of the problems of all this is that when the shit literally hits the fan, you don’t have time to go to the Web site and go to appendices out of your back pocket. You’ve got to know what to do,” he said.
More than two dozen students interviewed since Monday have said they generally feel confident in GW’s safety, but many have said they still feel scared that tragedy could strike Foggy Bottom.
When asked about GW’s security, senior Colleen Keller, said no institution is free from the possibility of violence. “I think it could happen anywhere. You can’t block off students from entering buildings, but I think security is adequate here,” she said.
Junior Emily Sydnor said an incident like that at Virginia Tech, which was publicized as a mass homicide-suicide at the time of the interview, probably cannot be deterred.
“It’s not really something that you can prepare for,” Sydnor said. “It’s not like you can have police officers in every classroom.”
In the event of a shooting on campus, UPD officers would not be able to be the first-responders because they do not carry firearms.
UPD Chief Dolores Stafford said her department would serve in a support capacity to the Metropolitan Police Department during such a crime. MPD officers have the training and equipment to respond to what Stafford called an “active-shooter situation.”
She added that UPD officers carry pepper spray and side-handle batons and that they “go through a rigorous series of defensive tactics classes.”
Foggy Bottom cannot become overridden with security personnel and overzealous precautions to avert crime, said University President Stephen Joel Trachtenberg, who admitted that GW is not immune from a mass shooting.
“You can’t turn this place into a police state. We’re in the middle of a city; there are public streets. Thousands of people and students roam our campus,” he said. “It’s not just about greater security – it’s a greater emphasis on health and equality in our society.”
-Brandon Butler, Andrew Ramonas and Eric Roper contributed to this report.