Virginia Tech weaves emergency management into its security landscape

On April 16, 2007, Michael Mulhare was sitting in his office at the Rhode Island office of emergency management listening to the news reports coming out of Virginia Tech University about an active shooter on campus. As the hours progressed, the gravity of the situation intensified for Mulhare, who had two children attending the university.

"My perspective at the time was a little different. Both my children were students there, so I viewed the incident from the lens of both a parent and an emergency management administrator. There were a lot of things to consider. Do we bring our students home? Do we helicopter ourselves down there and insert ourselves into the process? That was the parent side talking," said Mulhare. "The emergency management professional side of me said step back and realize my kids needed time to recover and heal as a part of their community. So we fought the urge to go down or have they come home."

Nonetheless, the tragic mass shooting that cost the lives of 32 Virginia Tech students, became a defining moment for both Mulhare and the university. An opportunity arose the following year for Mulhare to join the VT administration as its director of emergency management. Once on the staff, Mulhare and his team made it their mission to enhance the school’s emergency management acumen and build on an already solid foundation of interdepartmental cooperation.

"During this entire incident (the campus shooting), I observed that VT already had a lot of the right procedures and policies in place. The only thing that might have been lacking was the university’s ability to speak the language of emergency management. Very few university or colleges at that time possessed that skill," Mulhare said.

Mulhare explained that emergency management works in an incident command structure and there are certain protocols to follow. Higher education has a functionality and way of doing things that don’t necessarily follow the same path. He and his team worked on bridging the policy and procedural gaps, while also providing an opportunity for administrators to learn a little more about emergency management and know how to interact with external agencies when there was a crisis.

"In reality, it boils down to three things that any emergency management team needs to make happen. The first is ensuring individual preparedness and working with your community to create that sense of increased awareness and taking the steps to be better prepared for an emergency. Then making sure plans are in place to manage the individual needs of those affected during the situation," said Mulhare. "The second aspect is departmental readiness. Emergencies happen within a locality, whether it is a section or district of a town or a building or student center at a university of 40,000. So you need to know what to do within your own building and department. What is your departmental emergency plan? How do you evacuate, shelter in place or secure in place?"

"The last part of the puzzle is that institutional resiliency," he continued. "That begins at the higher levels of the university, making sure you have business continuity plans in place, your management team – not only senior level, but middle management - understand what to do during an emergency and understand what the mission is. They must also know how to recover should there be some disruption in services or your ability to provide services."

It is that institutional resiliency that may be the most important factor in constructing a successful university emergency management roadmap. The campus of Virginia Tech is a sprawling landscape of more than 2,600 acres, 200 buildings, a 66,000-seat football stadium, a medical college and research center, an airport and another 3,200 acres of agricultural research land. There are also six satellite campuses. Because of this diverse campus culture and vast expanse of community, Mulhare stressed that providing several modes of mass notification in time of crisis is crucial. The systems need be multi-faceted and multi-channeled. He added that you need to understand the communication preferences of the community, which include students, staff and faculty. After making that assessment the university can then develop its solution accordingly.

"That is really the roadmap VT has taken to build its emergency management system," said Mulhare. "One of the primary baseline considerations when it comes to assessing technology is that it needs to work when it needs to work – and work efficiently. That is the underlining parameter. You realize there is no system or technology that is 100 percent fail safe, so you must make sure you have built in redundancy in your system."

The redundancies incorporated into the Virginia Tech system have made it one of the most dynamic in the country. There are currently eight modes of emergency communication on campus that include the Virginia Tech homepage, broadcast e-mails, electronic message boards in classrooms, VT Phone Alerts via text message, email or phone call, VT desktop computer alerts, incorporation of social media like Facebook and Twitter, a recorded hotline, and campus sirens and loudspeakers. Even without students or staff signing up, emergency notifications are sent through all delivery methods except for VT phone alerts, social media, and the VT desktop alerts.

Instituting a set of clear and concise emergency protocols is another of the keys Mulhare sees as ensuring a successful mission. His team enforces five clear mandates that include formalizing the intent of the emergency network system, providing a workable standard of operations, removing any ambiguities in the emergency message, creating a legally defendable position for all actions taken during an emergency situation, and finally, authorizing decision-making capabilities at the operational and response levels.

"You only have one shot to get your first message out where it will be most impactful. Because incidents are usually fluid and things rapidly change, you want to make sure you are getting the most accurate and needed information out during that first incident," said Mulhare. "You must also be aware that as the demand on your infrastructure increases and as the demand for information increases, your ability to deliver additional messages may not be as good as that first one."

He cites two prime examples as being the recent Boston Marathon bombing that saw cellular service slow down and some key communication systems overloaded or completely shutdown. And of course, the communication nightmare that occurred as the terrorist attacks on New York’s Twin Towers played out.

As his community expands, Mulhare’s department realizes it must also grow to meet the needs of the university. The use of social media is certainly one of the most dynamic tools that have impacted the emergency communication network, but the evolution of real-time smart phone apps is a new and exciting development. The new VT Gemini app provides mapping information of the buildings on campus and an emergency quick reference guide, along with a more detailed set of specific guides pulled from the website.

"We have a lot of outreach material and methods to get notification and information out to the community, but one of the things we wanted to do was to make information ‘just-in-time’ as we can, because we realize that much of our community and constituency aren’t thinking about these issues in their everyday lives," he said. "So the app puts emergency information right on their mobile device – currently just smartphones. It lets the user know what to do in an emergency and where the Blue Light phones are on campus if they need to interact with security and aren’t able to use 911."


Mr. Mulhare will be one of the invited speakers at the 5th Secured Cities Conference in Baltimore, November 14-15, 2013. You can register at