Be prepared: How SMU will respond to the next emergency

Speeding firetruckSeptember is National Preparedness Month, and in the wake of Virginia Tech, universities are looking to learn from past crises. Associate Vice President for Human Resources and Business Services Bill Detwiler and Director of Emergency Preparedness and Business Continuity Lee Arning answer questions about SMU’s new initiatives and capabilities for responding to emergencies ranging from severe weather to active shooters – and what faculty and staff members can do to help these programs succeed. Read more.


How will the University notify the campus community in emergency situations?

We should say at the outset that the University is a very complicated place to notify people on any issue. It’s a highly decentralized environment – about 200 acres and 100 different buildings. Given that, our strategy is to have a communications program that’s both multifaceted and redundant. If cellphones fail, as they generally do in emergencies, we’ll have several other devices available. In fact, there are about 16 of them.

Can you give us specifics about the new tools?

There is a lot of emphasis on communication. We have new software that allows us to send 10,000 text messages per minute to all faculty, staff and students. It also has voicemail capability that allows us to send 2,000 voice messages per minute, so we can cover a campus of 10,000 to 15,000 in just a few minutes.

One problem is that we only have cellphone numbers for about 10 percent of faculty and staff. So we need their help. We need them to go to Access.SMU and update their emergency notification information.

What about existing communications capabilities?

We still have bulk e-mail and voice messages that go to PCs and office phones. We also have a brand-new siren on campus that’s much more audible than the old one. It has a standard Civil Defense alert warning for tornados, but it also has voiceover capability, which allows us to broadcast a voice message from central dispatch that will be audible outdoors on campus. It includes a sound that’s distinct from the Civil Defense tone and is unique to SMU. That tone will be activated in the event of an active shooter lockdown. That’s being tested right now.

There are building managers with bullhorns and walkie talkies in each building, and we are working on a project that will let us centrally connect to police dispatch the PA systems that already exist in about 22 different buildings. We have police cruisers with PA systems that can pull into a quad and broadcast messages. We’re also looking at wireless technology that will let us set up PA systems in buildings that currently don’t have them.

We’re upgrading our 911 system and have just upgraded our police dispatch area with new radios. We even have a runner system in place. So if technology fails, we have low-tech solutions that we know will work.

What does “lockdown” mean in the context of a place like SMU, where there is no centralized way to restrict access to buildings?

Obviously, we can’t do a “lockdown” in the same way that, for example, the Dallas Independent School District can, in which we literally lock the doors and windows in every building and prevent anyone from entering or leaving. That type of restriction doesn’t fit with a university culture, even if it were physically possible. Rather, “lockdown” refers to how we protect ourselves in the presence of an active shooter or other hazard. We do that by sheltering out of sight and through barricading actions – crouching low, away from doors and windows, and behind desks, dividers and other barriers.

What are you doing to inform faculty and staff about these programs?

We have a major educational effort going on, starting with new faculty and staff orientations. We’re meeting with the Faculty Senate and the Staff Association and giving talks at retreats in the schools and colleges. We’re spreading word about what faculty and staff need to know and the actions they might be called upon to take, as well as the ways in which they’ll find out about an emergency. It’s sort of Emergency Planning 101.

Can you tell us about Studio Abroad, the new software for students and faculty?

When the transit bombing occurred in London two years ago, we learned – to our surprise – that we had 171 faculty, staff and students there. It took a great deal of time and effort to figure out who was there and what we might have to do to get them back, to communicate with parents and the like. So we’ve purchased this software, which all foreign-traveling faculty, staff and students will use before they go out. They’ll go online and fill out information about their itinerary, flight numbers, the sponsor of their program, how they can be reached – even about their side trips.

We’re also going to put some teeth in it: If you don’t complete this requirement, you won’t get academic credit, or reimbursement if you’re a faculty or staff member. So we’re putting the horse before the cart, requiring this step as a condition of the program.

We plan to use this as a general check-in system, too, as a way to log in from anywhere in the world just to say “Present,” to let us know where you are and that you’re all right.

Where can we learn more about the emergency plan and how the University prepares for threats?

We have a Web site devoted to emergency planning at smu.edu/emergency. There’s also a new logo campaign called SMU Aware – instructional posters will be placed in every classroom to show people what to do in an evacuation, lockdown, shelter in place or severe weather.

What can faculty and staff members do to be ready for a campus emergency?

The first thing is to update their emergency contact information and phone numbers in Access.SMU. We plan to reach them no matter where they are, but it helps when we have this most basic information.

Community members also need to understand what to do. They need to think as if they’re on an airplane during take-off. Where are the emergency exits? What are the strategies? How will I learn about an emergency when it occurs? Most of us don’t think we have the time to self-educate on safety, but it could be a lifesaving few minutes to learn the procedures we have in place.

What else can SMU community members do?

Faculty, staff and students need to be more aware and more vigilant. The post-9/11 world is a very different place. You know the campus inside and out. You know when something’s amiss, when vehicles are overloaded or unattended or parked where they shouldn’t be. You know when there’s extra activity in an area that’s usually quiet at that time of day. Contact the police when something looks wrong to you.

And in incidents such as Virginia Tech, where there are issues with a troubled student, those issues usually are known by dozens of people long before they reach critical mass. We know from FBI profilers and the U.S. Secret Service’s National Threat Assessment Center that young adults have a very difficult time keeping to themselves when they’re troubled. If they’re suicidal, if they’re homicidal, if they have drug or alcohol issues or are suffering from a major depression, they generally have to share that with their colleagues.

What we ask this campus to do is to step forward and care about fellow students and fellow faculty and staff members. Bring information when you have it. We have to break through this culture of “not snitching,” when “snitching” is helping and caring. Come forward with what you know about someone who’s troubled before it becomes a disaster for that person, and possibly for the entire campus community.

>> Visit smu.edu/emergency.
>> Visit SMU’s Live Responsibly Web site.
>> Download a copy of Recognizing and Responding to Students in Distress from the Office of Student Life (PDF format).

About Kathleen Tibbetts

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