A University’s approach: How UMass prepares for active shooter, emergency situations

By Anthony Rentsch

Shannon Broderick/Daily Collegian
(Shannon Broderick/Daily Collegian)

Editor’s note: In the wake of numerous reported instances of gun violence on college campuses across the nation, the Daily Collegian is running a three-part series focusing on both national incidents and how the University of Massachusetts is prepared to handle an active shooter situation on campus. This is part two.

As the issue of gun violence on college campuses has become more prevalent, the University of Massachusetts has continued to refine its procedures for how it would handle the threat of an active shooter.

Behind the University’s preparations is Jeffrey Hescock, director of university emergency management and business continuity. Hescock helps to oversee the Emergency Operations Center Team, a group with representatives from across campus tasked with mitigating risks and to responding to emergencies, an effort that encompasses departments from student affairs to law enforcement to information technology.

During an emergency, the EOCT acts as the coordinating entity, communicating with the campus’ emergency support functions to see where more resources are needed and providing information both internally and externally about the state of the emergency.

The EOCT meets quarterly to review the Campus Emergency Management Plan, reflect on any incidents that occurred at UMass in the previous quarter, and look at any emergencies experienced by other universities to determine best practices. Hescock said each meeting ends with a tabletop exercise – a scenario they design and walk through on the spot.

In addition to these meetings, Hescock said the EOCT is activated at least four times per year for planned events, including home football games and commencement, which provides a less stressful environment for the group to get to know each other and coordinate smaller-scale resource allocation.

To Hescock, the meetings and activations are necessary to make sure the University is ready to handle any given situation, from the typical severe weather of a New England winter to the gas leak that occurred in the Southwest Residential Area in June of 2014, to a shooting similar to those experienced by Virginia Tech, Northern Illinois University or, recently, Umpqua Community College in Roseburg, Oregon.

“We really focus on ensuring that we take an all-hazards approach, so that our main plan is flexible because you never really know what the type of emergency is going to be, so you don’t want to have a dedicated specific plan for each one of those,” he said.

The immediate response

Hescock said that, in the case of an active shooter on campus, the University Police Department would likely be the first to hear about it. Once they determine if the threat is credible, Hescock said they would alert him and activate the EOCT command structure.

At the same time, he said a UMPD dispatcher would send out a campus-wide alert via text message and email, as well as to sound the eight sirens located on campus, instructing students to shelter in place. The dispatcher has the option of selecting a preset message from a drop-down list – an option for an active shooter is available – or utilizing the sirens’ PA function, either of which goes through in a matter of seconds. The sirens are tested three times a year.

Hescock said the EOCT will typically gather in the community room of the police station, which is equipped with video screens showing cameras around campus, among other things. If they are unable to meet there, the group gathers in either Draper Hall – where Hescock’s office is located – or at an off-campus, UMass-owned property on University Drive.

He added that there are a few to-go boxes, consisting of equipment such as laptops that can be used if people are not able to access their own personal equipment, or if there’s outside assistance, such as the state police, that does not come with its own equipment.

From there, the EOCT’s coordinating mode kicks into gear. For an active shooter, Hescock said the group would mainly be communicating with UMPD officers responding to the threat and providing resources, such as assisting in barricading a road, as necessary. UMass police would also communicate with local and state law enforcement agencies and first responders to get back up.

According to interim chief of police Patrick Archbald, UMPD officers would respond in a manner consistent with the active shooter threat training they are required to receive. He said all of UMPD’s officers undergo National Tactical Officers Association training on active shooter response by law enforcement.

The NTOA training occurs over the summer, as police take over a building for four straight weekends and simulate entering a building, utilizing good communication, using whatever they can as cover and trying to get to the site of the threat as soon as possible, in conjunction with other law enforcement agencies, including the Amherst Police Department.

UMass spokesperson Edward Blaguszewski said UMPD has received this training annually for at least the past 10 years. He added that police offer a free 90-minute active shooter training to student, faculty and staff, which stresses the importance of understanding escape routes, knowing how to respond and defending yourself as a last resort.

While the police aim to get to the shooter as soon as possible to prevent additional harm, the EOCT is communicating both internally, via the text message, email and siren alert system, and externally, through posting status updates on a color-coded message bar, referred to as a stripe, on the UMass homepage.

This, Hescock said, is one of the team’s most important functions during the event of an emergency.

“The media is calling and asking for (information), and the problem is that the situation is still fluid, and our goal is to push them to the website and say, ‘This is where we are posting information to,’” he said. “What you see in these instances is you can’t go too long without posting information because the media and other people start speculating on what is happening. Our goal is to constantly update and feed news and media internally and externally. If there has been no change in the last half hour, we post that there has been no change in the last half-hour because if you go too long without communications it is not a good thing.”

Once the threat has been neutralized, the all-clear message is communicated both through the alert systems as well as on the University’s website.

What happens next depends on a lot of factors involved in the shooting, Archbald said, including whether the gunman committed suicide, was shot by police or surrendered.

Archbald said the police would likely close down the area in which the shooting occurred for days, as local, state and possibly national investigators gathered evidence. He said the department could interview upwards of 100 people and that officers would be recalled to cover shifts as they collected evidence, conducted interviews and worked security at the crime scene.

“Things slow down after the incident, and we have to move very methodically,” he said.

esfgunviolenceThe role of mental health

As has been widely discussed in the wake of other school shootings, mental health plays an important role, both in identifying potential threats and in helping the campus to recover after the incident.

Harry Rockland-Miller, director of the Center for Counseling and Psychological Health, said CCPH is in active communication with other departments on campus, including UMPD.

Often, these departments will come to CCPH asking for a direct intervention with a student in distress or just to consult with how they can be of better support of the student, according to Rockland-Miller.

Once a student develops a relationship with CCPH, however, counselors have an ethical and legal obligation to keep discussions confidential. Rockland-Miller said there were a limited number of exceptions where CCPH is obligated to supersede confidentiality and bring in law enforcement or the student’s parents or guardians into play, especially when the risk of violence is imminent. He said instances in which confidentiality is necessarily superseded occur between once a year and once every other year, although risk of violence is not always the reason.

The University also has an Assessment and Care Team, which he said meets weekly to discuss ways in which to better support “students of concern.”

“If there’s a student who is in distress we’ll talk about how we can best support that student through a multidisciplinary lens,” he said. “Typically if there is a student in distress, they are not just in distress in one setting. Our goal is to wrap around and support a student to keep them at the University, to retain them as students and to provide them with whatever support is necessary to support them in the process.

“If there is a risk of violence that is identified, which happens, but it’s not frequent – for the overwhelming majority of people that we are talking about, there is no violence involved. It is a student in distress. Sometimes their behavior is distressing others, but not necessarily in a violent way. If there is violence involved, we are going to do a threat assessment. UMPD is going to become very active there.”

Archbald said UMass police do not use social media to “proactively monitor concerning behavior,” although it is unclear if that is the case. He said UMPD does use social media when protest activity or crowds become a concern.

Rockland-Miller said CCPH also does “extensive outreach in consultation and training,” which includes two series of trainings with all residential assistants focused on the basics of mental health as well as suicide prevention gatekeeper training.

Of course, Rockland-Miller said CCPH also has measures in place to handle counseling and support in the wake of a traumatic incident, like a mass shooting. He said there is a community provider network that he could tap into if UMass needed additional help to support students after such a tragedy.

After 9/11, he said, community mental health providers volunteered to support the UMass community, although the additional support was not needed in the end. At the time, he said opening up the center’s hours and holding community events sufficed.

How things have changed

Both Hescock and Archbald stressed that the University takes shootings at other schools seriously and reviews after action reports commissioned after each one in order to refine its best practices.

“We are constantly looking at updating things,” Hescock said.

On UMPD’s end, changes are typically tactical ones. For example, after the shooting at Columbine High School in 1999, Archbald said it became the paradigm to give all police officers SWAT training so that they could respond to an active shooter threat without waiting for other authorities.

For Hescock, one of the aspects he examines is how the school communicated internally and externally in the face of a crisis and what ways that communication could have been improved.

One concrete change that has resulted from looking at other universities is the ability to truncate the UMass website – including removing nonessential components, such as pictures – during an emergency to include only barebones information. This emergency feature allows important information regarding sheltering and evacuation to be accessed more easily, as well as to help the site handle an increased amount of traffic.

Hescock added that the EOCT also learned lessons from the 2012 gas leak in Southwest. Because the leak was confined to a specific area of campus, Hescock said only a couple of the sirens were used to alert people of what to do. However, he said this created confusion in other parts of campus, as people could not understand the sirens’ message. Now, all eight sirens are activated for an emergency.

Regular training and testing is a crucial aspect of the University’s emergency response structure as well.

On Oct. 5, the eight sirens underwent scheduled testing, which happens three times per year and also encompasses text message and email alert systems testing.

In addition to these routine tests, UMass also holds more extensive emergency preparedness trainings. For instance, UMass received a $106,000 grant from the state’s Executive Office of Safety and Security to hold an active shooter training in Franklin Dining Common during spring break in March. The training consisted of three elements: the immediate, tactical response from the EOCT and first responders in the morning; a mock press conference with the University Office of News and Media about the morning’s events around midday; and the discussions of the recovery and healing process for up to a year after the incident. Hescock said members of the Five College Consortium, local first responders, and state police observed and participated.

Two years ago, Hescock said, the University conducted a shelter exercise, using the Mullins Center to simulate sheltering and feeding individuals in the wake of a tragedy. After the simulation, an after-action report was written and analyzed, resulting in a smaller-scale simulation, which was run last year.

He also said UMass is currently in the process of trying to hire a vendor to help the five-campus system to design and develop a relevant “exercise that would impact all five entities and the president’s office to really see kind of how our commanding coordination would work on that.”

Yet, for the average student, faculty or staff member, Hescock, Archbald and Rockland-Miller said the most important thing to do is to sign up for the text message alert service and be aware of other emergency communication avenues.

Currently, Archbald said over 40,000 people are on the UMass emergency alert email list. According to Hescock, however, only 24,387 people are signed up to receive UMass emergency text messages, which is something students, faculty and staff can do through SPIRE.

“It’s been a sense of frustration for the system that it’s been encouraged and encouraged but some students still haven’t utilized it yet,” Rockland-Miller said of the text message alert system.

Archbald said there is also a plan for a desktop application that pops up with an alert message on your laptop.

Anthony Rentsch can be reached at [email protected] and followed on Twitter @Anthony_Rentsch. Shelby Ashline, Brendan Deady, Stuart Foster and Colby Sears contributed to this report.