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BU Holds Drills for Worst-Case Scenarios

Summer exercises include campus shooter, disease outbreak

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Boston and BU police officers arrest the shooter in an emergency response exercise last month at the George Sherman Union. The exercise was part of BU’s ongoing emergency response planning.

Over the past four months, Boston University officials have had to deal with the crash of a plane with student athletes on board, a flu pandemic that killed thousands, and a fatal shooting at the George Sherman Union. Fortunately, none of these events was real: all were simulated exercises designed to prepare police and other key personnel for the types of emergencies that have tragically become more common on college campuses. The exercises involved top administrators and communications officers and campus police, dispatchers, and emergency responders, as well as Brookline and Boston law enforcement agencies.

“It’s a good feeling to know that when something happens, we’re not introducing each other,” says Stephen Morash, BU’s director of emergency response planning, who helped lead the exercises. “We know who we are and what we can expect from one another. It’s a good team that President Brown has put together. I’m very confident about this university being able to respond to a major incident or an emergency.”

Before coming to BU, Morash worked for 30 years in Boston’s emergency services sector. In the wake of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, he was deputy operations chief for the Massachusetts Port Authority (Massport), which oversees Logan Airport. Morash says that BU is one of many schools and colleges that have been ratcheting up security measures and revisiting response plans following the deadly shootings at Virginia Tech in 2007 and Northern Illinois University in 2008.

Prior to the exercises on campus, BU participated in a large-scale tabletop exercise held by the Massport Fire Rescue Department at Logan Airport that centered on family assistance plans. The simulated scenario, in which representatives from dozens of agencies and institutions gathered around tables and decided what actions to take in response to incident reports, involved the tarmac crash of two planes with athletic teams on board, one of which was from BU. Participants included personnel from BU and from local, state, federal, and international emergency and safety agencies. The event included a guest speaker whose son was killed on TWA Flight 800. He recounted the anguish of not knowing whether his son had survived the 1996 midair explosion off the coast of Long Island and the confused, often insensitive response of airline officials.

On June 19, University officials organized a tabletop exercise involving a campus shooter. And officials held a second tabletop exercise on the Medical Campus on July 16, this time imagining the consequences of a flu outbreak similar to the devastating worldwide pandemic of 1918.

Headed up by the Boston University Police Department and the Office of Emergency Planning and Response, exercise leaders painted detailed, minute-by-minute disaster scenarios and queried participants for responses and action plans, from establishing a command post and alerting the BU community to handling the media, contacting family members, and managing memorials.

“It worked better than I thought it would,” says Peter Fiedler, vice president of administrative services, who served as incident commander. “When there are a lot of people around a table, you think they might freeze up or stop thinking logically. But people really communicated well.”

Most recently, on August 19, the BUPD conducted a full-scale drill on campus in which an actor played the part of an enraged gunman, killing one person and threatening others. That exercise, in which participants moved around campus as they would in a real emergency, involved police from Boston University, Boston, and Brookline, as well as other emergency personnel.

One lesson learned from the drill, Morash says, is that while events unfold with dramatic speed, “information won’t be as readily available as you’d like.”

Fiedler says that the BUPD has already made great strides in eliminating potential blocks in communication. “One of the things that Chief Tom Robbins has done since he’s been in office is to develop an extremely fluid relationship not only with Brookline and Boston police, but with state and federal entities as well. That definitely works in our favor. It makes our job a whole lot better and the response much more efficient. We’re all understanding one another. As we know from September 11, one of the issues that came up that horrific day was that the Fire Department couldn’t talk to the police.”

Scott Pare, BU’s deputy director of public safety and a former director of security at Logan Airport, helped design the exercises, and he says the BU team performed well. “I’m huge on drills,” he says. “The more you train and prepare, the better you respond when the time comes. Hopefully, we don’t have to use our training, but if we do, at least we find the quirks now and not then.”

The University is planning more exercises, including several involving the National Emerging Infectious Diseases Laboratories building on the Medical Campus in the South End. “We won’t stop training, we won’t stop running tests,” Fiedler says. “We need to stay on our toes at all times. When a situation hits, we want to be able to protect the community we serve.”

Caleb Daniloff can be reached at cdanilof@bu.edu.

6 Comments

6 Comments on BU Holds Drills for Worst-Case Scenarios

  • Anonymous on 09.04.2008 at 7:42 am

    Worst-Case Scenario Drills

    It is all well and good for university personnel to conduct these drills. However, it was totally unnecessary to broadcast false alarms on BU Today, unnecessarily scaring people who have any connection with the university, even part-time and remote. People involved with BU are of all ages, and some have heart disease. To tell EVERYONE that there is a gunman on campus is irresponsible.

  • Anonymous on 09.04.2008 at 7:50 am

    BU Holds drills

    I am glad BU is doing a better job of training its police but we need to recognize they cannot be everywhere and that we are still responsible for our own safety. That said, why isn’t BU working directly with the student community rather than just sending us a text message informing us that bad things are happening on campus? What good will this do those people in the thick of the bad situation? Every police officer I know agrees that these programs are essentially a farce. BU needs to stop role playing and start leading the nation is implementing real changes that will empower the students to save themselves in a real emergency. Sending us text messages is not sufficient. The American people have recently witnessed the ineffectiveness of police during natural disasters, terrorist attacks and in response to armed mad men. Why should we trust them again? There is an old saying that goes, “fool me once shame on you, fool me twice shame on me.”

  • Anonymous on 09.04.2008 at 8:06 am

    its nice to know that these preparations are taking place

    thanks a lot for the hard work

  • Anonymous on 09.04.2008 at 9:40 am

    But what about just two days ago?

    I see the headline explaining of campus emergency preparation, and all I can think of is how the other day when there was an “unidentified package”, we all received the “It’s okay, no problem” message five or so minutes BEFORE the initial warning message, essentially defeating the purpose of sending emails at all. And I understand how it was the emergency squad’s “judgement” to not send text messages in an effort to not scare people of a situation that was a more or less under control, but in this day and age where everyone’s vibrating cell phone is attached to their hip, I would think texting the student body would be the FIRST form of communication. And seeing how the issue was a package on the street, what if a student were walking down Comm. Ave – would he/she be more able to read an email (from the laptop that was tucked away in their backpack), or read a text message that was vibrating in their pocket?

    Seeing that the package was not a threat, it’s easy to say “Oh, whoops, the system wasn’t as ready as it could’ve been. It should be okay next time around.” But what IF it had been something more dangerous. There shouldn’t be excuses if this kind of summer practice is taking place.

  • Anonymous on 09.04.2008 at 10:21 am

    We need to keep students free from the drills

    It is great that BU is taking the precaution of running the drills. However, they should not involve students unless the students volunteer. Yesterday there was a fire drill test in one of the dorms. Everybody figured it was just a drill and took their time to get out of the building. Some took more than 10 minutes. When the real thing happens, how many students will think it is just a drill and not take the situation seriously?

    Unless I see an actual fire I will not take it seriously.

    Another thing is that I gave a fake cell phone number for the emergency text. Why? because I got way too many fake emergency text messages. The chance of an actual emergency happening is so low that I am willing to take that chance to avoid being annoyed by all these test.

  • Anonymous on 09.04.2008 at 11:29 am

    Hmm, well

    I value my life more than the possible “annoyances” of text messages, however “low” a possible threat/fire may be.

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