Tag Archives: emergency management plans

Changing the Landscape of Emergency Management Legislation

During ‘crises’ — something as horrific and unexpected as a school shooting fits that criteria — immediate strategies have to be formed; prevailing narratives then have a direct impact on which coping strategies are selected.[1] As documented in the blog post published 16th February 2015, school shooting incidents have elucidated flaws in emergency management plans; this requires legislative response. In Colorado, the site of the Columbine school shooting (1999), the General Assembly passed the ‘Safe Schools Act’ (2000), requiring each school district board in the state to adopt a emergency management plan, crisis management procedures, and employee training. This framework had to adhere to the ‘National Incident Management System’: a federal-level framework of four principles for responding to crises consisting of organisational structures and strategies, intended to allow first responders from different jurisdictions and agencies to be able to coordinate more effectively.[2]

Following the 2007 Virginia Tech school shooting, legislation was implemented the year after at the state-level. All institutions falling within the purview of higher education were mandated to have emergency management plans and coordinate these with local community ones; every year the president or vice-president of every institution is to review and make any necessary revisions to ensure it remains current, and the institution shall carry out a drill; after a period of four years, the plan is to be reviewed and submitted to the state ‘Department of Emergency Management.’

Although Colorado had already taken action in the past, the Virginia Tech shooting (2007) prompted the Governor of Colorado to make school safety a priority item once again. In 2008, he signed a bill which established the Colorado School Safety Resource Center to provide assistance and funding to schools in preparing for and responding to emergency situations. An existing Colorado statute was amended to include the addition of a sub-section provisioning funds for the school mapping information to first responders.

Moreover, the Colorado ‘Safe Schools Act’ (2000) was amended in 2008 to include the requirement that all school districts had to incorporate components of the ‘National Response Framework’ into emergency management plans. The actions to be taken were: devising a plan to meet the date of compliance (1 July 2009); adopting the ‘National Incident Management System,’ the federal-level framework for dealing with emergencies and the ‘Incident Command System,’ as the management structures to organise and organise crisis responses; form relationships and communicate with local responders to check adherence to local, county and state level plans; define the roles and responsibilities of community partners through memoranda of understanding (known as MOU’s); engage in practice schedules, such as drills and tabletop (i.e. simulation) exercises; partake in an annual inventory of emergency equipment. Revised Statutes in the 2012 Colorado General Assembly made the legislative declaration that “emergency response and crisis management measures should be implemented in all communities within the state to protect students and school personnel.” The importance of emergency management plans, training and response means that legislation is an expected response to flaws; the next blog will discuss this in relation to law enforcement tactics.

[This blog was put together by analysing legislative documents from Colorado and Virginia. Future blogs will look at a different dimension of emergency management, by exploring the response of law enforcement to school shooting incidents.]

[1] Fairclough, Isabela. and Norman Fairclough. (2012) Political Discourse Analysis: A Method for Advanced Students. London, New York: Routledge, 3, 16.

[2]  Definition taken from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (n.d.) ‘National Incident Management System,’ https://www.fema.gov/national-incident-management-system



Managing the Risks of School Shootings: Flaws to Avoid

Continuing the theme of the last two blogs of emergency management plans and training — something which is crucial to managing something as deadly as a school shooting — this post elucidates what to avoid when planning for and responding to acts of violence. Since something like ‘risk’ cannot be entirely eliminated, what organisations should strive to achieve instead is a level of ‘safety,’ i.e. what is deemed to be “an acceptable level of risk.”[1] In terms of school shootings, this means planning for which actions to take in a crisis should be located within the wider rubric of school violence; as well as accounting for potential spectacular events, which are rarer but more likely to be lethal in nature.

A common flaw of emergency management plans in educational institutions where school shootings have already taken place is not considering the possibility of such an event occurring in the first place: for instance, Columbine High School and Virginia Tech University had guidance in place for fires, bomb threats and so forth; yet not for an active shooter scenario. Whilst schools may feel that ‘it can’t happen here,’ the myriad school shootings which have occurred in the United States show that these tend to occur in suburban areas with relatively little crime. Moreover, the danger in not acknowledging the risk of a school shooting is that no plans would be put into place about how to eliminate or reduce that risk.[2]

Another common mistake is outdated or incomplete information in emergency management plans. An example of this is Virginia Tech University’s plan, which, at the time of the shooting, was two years old: this meant it had outdated information in it, such as the name of a previous police chief. Another instance of incomplete information is the case of Columbine High School, where, prior to the shooting, the building layout for the school had not been included in the plans — it has been said by delayed the response of police and other rescue personnel.[3] In situations like these, it certainly seems the point that Coombs[4] makes about the danger of having a plan in place is providing a false sense of security is correct: these have limited usefulness when actually applied to a crisis.

Probably the most well-known of emergency management mistakes is the delay in emergency communication at Virginia Tech University (refer back to the blog posted on the 20th August 2014 for more information). In addition to staff error, this transpired because of a number of pre-existing flaws: there was confusion about what ‘timely’ actually meant; there was no set template(s) for emergency communication messages; there were inconsistences in the emergency communication policy and emergency management plans about who had the authority to release an emergency alert. This exemplifies the importance of the linkages between different facets of emergency management: prevention, planning, communication, training and response.

[This blog post was put together using analyses of policy documents produced after the Columbine and Virginia Tech shootings, as well as further reading. The next blog post will document some of the changes made to law to eradicate these flaws.]

[1] Borghesi, Antonio and Barbara Gaudenzi. (2013) Risk Management: How to Assess, Transfer and Communicate Critical Risks. Springer: London, New York. Page 19 cited.

Vestermark, S. D. (1996). ‘Critical decisions, critical elements in an effective school security program.’ In A. M. Hoffman (ed.) Schools, violence and society. Westport, CT: Praeger, 101-122. Page 108 cited.

[2] Coombs, W. Timothy. (2012) Ongoing Crisis Communication: Planning, Managing and Responding (third edition). Thousand Oaks, CA.: Sage. Page 41 cited.

[3] For more details refer to Jefferson County Sherriff report. http://extras.denverpost.com/news/colreport/columbinerep/pages

[4] Coombs, W. Timothy. (2012) Ongoing Crisis Communication: Planning, Managing and Responding (third edition). Thousand Oaks, CA.: Sage. Page 106 cited.

“We are just waiting around as easy targets”: Anxiety about School Safety Procedures

The last blog detailed measures that can be utilised to prepare educational institutions for the occurrence of a school shooting. Discussed in this blog post will be the results of research into online commentaries of videos relating to previous school shooting attacks: these elucidate a further need to reassure students about the importance of emergency management training to their safety. In online debates, notably, there were insecurities expressed about whether school safety measures actually offer protection.

One issue, for instance, was a concern about hiding in a corner or under desks, rather than running for the nearest exit. Likely exacerbating these perceptions is knowledge of past shooting events — the mass shooting in Norway (2010) and the school shooting at Columbine High School (1999) were commonly cited  — and how others were killed. Extrapolating from this, the main ideas probably driving these reactions is a kind of helplessness at being inside where the threat is rather than running out to safety. Appropriately, a study by Fisher and Nasar’s study[1] into fear of crime on college campuses discovered that fear levels were highest in sites which offered low prospects for escape. As the last blog outlined, however, in cases where the attacker is inside the building, a ‘lockdown’ procedure is actually safer than trying to escape. With this in mind, training scenarios for educational institutions should spend a substantial amount of time explaining why taking a particular kind of action would be the safest in a particular situation, so that students are aware of why they are hiding rather than trying to escape.

In addition to this, despite the wave of school security measures implemented after high-profile school shootings like those at Columbine High School and Virginia Tech University, online users still felt that this was an area of weakness; this is evinced with statements like “schools need better security” and “security was lax as usual.” Online users were particularly incredulous that higher educational institutions do not even have metal detectors, pointing out that this made them ‘open targets’ for shooters. Considering this, some users argued in favour of universal metal detector implementation across all educational institutions. Despite this, as pointed out by my blog post ‘Creating a Market? The Commercial Products of School Shootings,’ (published 14th May 2014) the actual likelihood of metal detectors preventing school shootings is questionable. A study[2] of school safety administrators found that only 32% considered these to be effective in reducing more general school violence; this is even less likely to be the case when dealing with an active shooter event. Instead of metal detectors and other ‘target-hardening’ measures, it would be more fruitful to train students to prepare for school shootings, as well as to report any ‘warning signs’ that could prevent an attack from occurring in the first place.

[This blog post was put together by using analyses of comments from YouTube videos and some scholarly sources. The next blog post will discuss emergency management mistakes to avoid.]

[1] Fisher, Bonnie S. and Nasar, Jack L. (1992) ‘Fear of Crime in Relation to Three Exterior Site Features: Prospect, Refuge and Escape.’ Environment and Behaviour 24 (1), 35-65.

[2] Crystal A. Garcia. (2003) ‘School Safety Technology: Current Users and Perceived Effectiveness.’ Criminal Justice Policy Review 14: 30-54.

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.]