Crisis Management on Campus

Normalcy is no longer the norm. Everyday life is being inundated with constant bombardment of news and events, seemingly negative at every turn. Is this the result of changes in societal mores’, or is it the result of the technological advances in reporting the news, along with the immediate use of texting, Twitter or Facebook?

Between April 2008 and April 2009, an alert notification system to my cell phone delivered 48 incident alerts regarding schools and universities across the nation with 13 involving bombings or bomb threats and 17 involving shootings. Between April 2009 and December of 2010, that same reporting system identified a total of 382 incidents with 113 involving bombs or bomb threats, 72 actual shootings and 59 relative reports of guns on campuses. Although there are additional months involved in the latter numbers, the relative increase is alarming. The question becomes, what can be done to prevent, mitigate and respond to these issues and who, as well as how many, are the responders?

You hear the term “first responder” when talking of those brave men and women who are usually the first on the scene ready to give assistance or mitigate an issue such as “going to the shooter.” These people are the ones who we rely on to fix the problem so we can resume our normal lives.

Still, the new norm in these situations requires us to acknowledge that we are on our own for at least the first 2-3 minutes when an incident occurs and there is chaos and panic. What skills do you have or someone else near you has to help stop the shooter, or provide medical first aid to those injured?

The recent shooting in Arizona underscores this issue. The person administering CPR and first aid to Senator Gabrielle Giffords was not a paramedic or other first responder — it was someone who had the skills to assist while the professionals were in route. As harsh as it may seem, you are on your own for those first few minutes.

This issue brings up two areas of concern: What can I personally do to help myself; and what can my company or institute (identified as educational institutions in general, K-12, higher ed and medical) do to assist me in surviving? The answer at Kennesaw State University in Georgia is the layered approach to program initiatives, training of personnel, equipment and technology.

Creating a Crisis Coordinator

In April 2007, I had just joined Kennesaw State as its AVP for Strategic Security and Safety, when on Monday, April 16, the infamous Virginia Tech shooting incident happened. The first thing we did was to assess what we have in place to mitigate a similar type of issue. Our in-house-certified Public Safety Department had some training in this type scenario, but we mainly relied on our relationship with the surrounding local police for assistance. The eye-opener was that the police were trained to go to the shooter and mitigate that activity, but they do not alert the 20,000-plus students, along with the 6,000 faculty and staff on the campus at any given time.

The initial solution, which has grown and matured over these three-plus years, has been to recognize that the police are there to stop the problem, while another separate organization — my department of Strategic Security and Safety — would be charged with training, mitigation, response and recovery of our crisis coordinator program: those boots on the ground in every building that we call our “immediate responders,” or Crisis Coordinators.

Crisis Coordinators are volunteers from every building on campus and are responsible for that building’s response to fires, alarms, medical emergencies and shelter-in/evacuation procedures. As with any large campus, Kennesaw State University is made up of 36 main buildings ranging from a single floor to four or more. In order to support the buildings during a medical incident, for example, all Automatic External Difibulators (AEDs) are strategically placed to where the Crisis Coordinators can get to the AED, return to the victim, and use the device within three minutes.

Our Crisis Coordinator Certification Program is made up of four individual training modules:

Module I – Crisis Coordinator Responsibilities and Overview includes what the Crisis Coordinator can expect to be faced with, and the how’s and why’s of sheltering-in principles as well as when to evacuate.

Module II – Operational Interface with Police identifies the actual response and interface with the police during an actual event. It identifies types of bombs and bomb making materials, and the training that comes with it for recognition of the initial bomb patterns and resultant pressure waves in greater distances.

Module III – Terrorism and Awareness Indicators includes an overview of recent and former terrorism trends and includes subject matter experts from the FBI and the Joint Terrorism Task Force.

Module IV – First Aid Training, Fire Extinguisher, MSDS Sheet Identification & Safety Overview. This module is broken into two distinct classes: CPR, AED and first aid, then the fire extinguisher hands-on training with the Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDS) for hazardous materials and a general safety overview.

Once the four modules are completed, Crisis Coordinators are instructed to go online to the Incident Command System (ICS) courses given by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) at the Emergency Management Institute (EMI) ( The four courses are: Introduction to Incident Command System; Single Resource and Initial Action Incidents; National Incident Management System (NIMS), an Introduction; and National Response Framework, an Introduction.
Once all four classroom modules are completed and the four online ICS course completions are fulfilled, the Crisis Coordinator receives their certificate as well as a Challenge Coin signifying the membership in this elite group of Immediate Responders.

These Crisis Coordinators are outfitted with orange Crisis Coordinator vests, whistles and digital walkie-talkie radios, separated via individual radio channels that afford real-time communications during an incident. The radios are not a part of the public safety radio system, which allows the crisis team to act separately. As we subsequently found out a year ago when all power was lost on campus, the only method of response to this issue was the crisis radio system, in conjunction with our public safety radio system.

Mass Notification

The second layer of response is our Siren and Voice Over alerts from American Signal, installed and supported by Convergint Technologies, which are only used when a shelter-in issue is identified, such as a hazardous material spill, a tornado warning or an active shooter/person with a gun alert. This system is very helpful during class change time when thousands of students and faculty are moving across the campus and may not know of a problem that is ahead or behind them. The system, and our training/education of people, enables them to seek shelter immediately. Four separate towers are deployed on the 360-acre campus and offsite location that ensures full coverage, using battery activation through solar charging.

The third layer of response is the Early Notification System encompassing alert messages through the use of SMS texting, cell voice messaging and e-mail alerts through a system from Blackboard called ConnectED. Rather than use an “opt-in” approach, the administration prides itself on making sure we are in contact with all our students, faculty and staff, and to do that, we upload the contact telephones and cell phones of each person through the Personnel system (ADP) and our student system (Banner) each evening. This ensures a phone number is in the alert system for every person, but does allow for an “opt-out” if the person so chooses.
Sending messages has been simple and quick, once the system is used frequently, but we still only use it in emergencies and not for general daily announcements. This way, when the call ID identifies our campus main number, everyone knows it is a real emergency message and not a class change rescheduling. Nearly 30,000 messages are sent out immediately and normally received within a few minutes — some immediately depending on the queue. SMS texts are received first, then the voice cell calls, then e-mails.

The fourth layer, which Kennesaw State deploys to offset the inherent “dead zones” of cell coverage, is our Alert Notification System comprising a computer override notice on all networked PCs and Macs. Even though our students and faculty are told to keep their cell phone “on” in class, but in the vibrate mode only, many areas in some of the buildings do not receive coverage. This alert layer ensures that even in the most cell phone-unfriendly area, the message will find you. A “popup” screen will override what is presently on the computer along with the projection screen, and display an alert message to either shelter-in (lock doors), move to a storm shelter or evacuate.

Using New Technologies

As we move forward down the line of identifying other technological issues in support of our overall objectives, it is prudent to realize that many of the newest products on the market are possibly still in a “beta test” mode. Usually this means the company may have been working in another area of technology and realized that their product can be modified to fit a niche in the emergency response field, for example. Beta tests are dangerous when your company or institute’s reputation is on the line. Better to have a proven technology and proven in what you are looking to do with it, rather than a technology that may do what it promises, but there is no hard track record of proven results at comparatively profiled facilities.

Kennesaw State University had been looking for the “One Button” approach to its notification and alert systems for some time. Many vendors indicated they had the solution, and in order to find out, a Request for Proposal was put out to determine what was actually on the market. Approximately 12 vendors submitted their bids, and all said they could integrate seamlessly with the American Signal siren system; however, most could not. From the very beginning of the effort, many did not want to answer “no” to that question as it would have eliminated them from any further consideration. Therefore, even when you get a “yes” answer to the RFP category, keep asking more questions as many issues on the surface have sub issues that make the difference.

In the case of the American Signal system, the answer was “yes” for integrating, but the problem surfaced when it was determined that an interface module needed to be installed between the American Signal controller and the software drivers to make it work, which ends up as another point of failure that needs to be factored in. The second issue was raised when we determined that many of the vendors were offering a solution that was an in-house hosted system, thereby requiring separate servers, separate databases, and most importantly, backup power and redundant systems to ensure use during an emergency. This was something we had tried to avoid, especially in the previously described power outage where the only technology that worked was the radio system.

As it turned out, there were only two systems that could accommodate the “one button” approach, both were in the $100K-$200K range per year recurring costs. As with any technology, you need to decide on whether saving 20-30 seconds in your alert system sequence is worth the extra costs associated with it. Kennesaw State decided that it was not cost-effective.

There are many opportunities to combine technology, manual operations and other processes that enable a first-class crisis management program. This layered approach to managing the incident provides a set of options that really work. The key is the people involved and throughout this article, those people who support the Crisis Coordinator Certification Program and are the “Immediate Responders”, define excellence.

Robert F. Lang is Assistant vice president for Strategic Security & Safety for Kennesaw State University in Georgia.