Emergency Communication Problems Highlighted by the Virginia Tech Shooting

The 2008 Virginia Tech shooting resulted in a transformation of emergency communication procedures by highlighting existing flaws in institutional polices and federal law — the changes made will be the subject of future blog posts. For this blog, I wish to set the scene by explicating exactly what went wrong on 16th April, 2007, when a school shooting attack occurred at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University — this will be shorted to Virginia Tech University for ease of reading.

The inquiry ordered by the Virginia Governor, Tim Kaine, into the actions of Virginia Tech University officials circumscribed the mistakes made on the day of the shooting. One of the major problems highlighted by VTRP (2007/2009) was there were inconsistencies between the institutional emergency communication policy, which listed the Policy Group (VTPG) and Police Department (VTPD) as being authorised parties for releasing emergency alerts, and the emergency management plan, denoting that the campus police department, despite having the authority to develop or request an alert, had to wait for the university’s policy group to deliberate and then either approve or reject the request — the latter option was the one followed on the day of the shooting, as campus police did not have the computer code needed to issue an emergency message campus-wide.

Another problem was there were no templates of messages for different scenarios when such a measure would have allowed for a more expeditious process of sending alerts. Virginia Tech University’s emergency management plans prior to the shooting centred on natural disasters (weather problems and fires) and acts of terrorism in a post 9/11 context, with varying levels of severity ranging from zero to three. Surprisingly perhaps, given it occurred in a post-Columbine environment, there were no provisions in place for a school shooting scenario — this could perhaps be attributable to the fact that most school shootings until that point had occurred in middle and high schools rather than colleges and universities. Consequently, the content of the emergency notification sent to staff and students at 9:26am was not very specific or urgent in its warnings:

A shooting incident occurred at West Ambler Johnston [dorm] earlier this morning. Police are on the scene and are investigating. The university community is urged to be cautious and are asked to contact Virginia Tech Police if you observe anything suspicious or with information on the case. Contact Virginia Tech Police at 231–6411. Stay tuned to the [webpage] http://www.vt.edu. We will post as soon as we have more information.

The second message sent at 9:50am, ten minutes after the perpetrator had begun shooting again, this time in Norris Hall, was more specific and direct: “A gunman is loose on campus. Stay in buildings until further notice. Stay away from all windows.” As it transpired, the VTRP (2007/2009) investigators concluded that if the emergency alert had been more urgent or advised specific actions, this could have alerted more people to suspicious activities and hence enhanced their chances of survival.

Notably, it could be argued that the most severe mistake was the delay in sending the message. In the VTRP (2007/2009) documents, a timeline of events shows that, after the dorm shooting, Virginia Tech University engaged in actions such as locking down its Center for Professional and Continuing Education and cancelling bank deposits for that day. At 8:45am, a member of the Policy Group emailed a colleague in Richmond stating “Gunman on the loose. This is not releasable yet” and, four minutes later, sent another one saying “just try to make sure it doesn’t get out.” Schools in nearby Blacksburg went into lockdown at 8:52am. Despite this, the first alert to students and staff at Virginia Tech was sent at 9:26am, twenty-one minutes after the first period started; although a technical error delayed the message for a further fifteen minutes so it was actually sent at about 9:10am. The review panel members surmised that had the message been released before 8:30am, this could then have been possibly received by students and staff before they left for the first class of the day, given most of the people would already be in class or walking to class at 9:26am and thus unlikely to have the opportunity or even the need to check their email accounts.

As it transpired, the official review came to the conclusion that the high death toll of the Virginia Tech shooting was attributable to the delay in communication and that the Policy Group and, to a lesser extent, the campus Police Department, are responsible for this. The authors of the review do acknowledge, however, that Cho is highly likely to have carried out a mass shooting that day anyway given his intentions to do so; it might have been elsewhere if the university plan had been thwarted. This chain of events resulted in Virginia Tech University changing its institutional policies, updating tits technologies and a lawsuit filed by some of the relatives of those killed — these will all be discussed in future blogs.

[Material from this blog originally appeared in a chapter in the book Reframing Punishment: Silencing, Dehumanisation and the Way Forward. Future blogs will expand on this, by noting the policy changes to institutions, law and technologies after the Virginia Tech shooting.]

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