What campus first responders can learn from Virginia Tech

The tragic events of April 17, 2007 at Virginia Tech, where 32 students and faculty were killed and others wounded by a lone gunman, forced police departments, EMS personnel and university security teams to reevaluate their emergency response procedures. The governor of Virginia requested a review panel assemble a report on the mass shooting incident to discover what first responders and support personnel could have done to better manage the situation as it unfolded and what lessons could be learned for other campuses across the country.

There were dozens of stories of heroic, commendable action taken that day by the faculty, students, law enforcement and EMS, but there are a number of key recommendations made by the review panel that could help prevent the loss of life in future crisis situations. The document is a compelling read in itself and has likely already been extensively reviewed by campus first responder departments, but here are some key suggestions that the review panel found:

  • II-9 The head of campus police should be a member of a threat assessment team as well as the emergency response team for the university. In some cases where there is a security department but not a police department, the security head may be appropriate.
  • II-10 Campus police must report directly to the senior operations officer responsible for emergency decision making. They should be part of the policy team deciding on emergency planning.
  • II-11 Campus police must train for active shooters (as did the Virginia Tech Police Department). Experience has shown that waiting for a SWAT team often takes too long. The best chance to save lives is often an immediate assault by first responders.
  • II-12 The mission statement of campus police should give primacy to their law enforcement and crime prevention role. They also must to be designated as having a function in education so as to be able to review records of students brought to the attention of the university as potential threats. The lack of emphasis on safety as the first responsibility of the police department may create the wrong mindset, with the police yielding to academic considerations when it comes time to make decisions on, say, whether to send out an alert to the students that may disrupt classes. On the other hand, it is useful to identify the police as being involved in the education role in order for them to gain access to records under educational privacy act provisions.
  • VII-1 In the preliminary stages of an investigation, the police should resist focusing on a single theory and communicating that to decision makers.
  • VIII-1 Campus police everywhere should train with local police departments on response to active shooters and other emergencies.
  • IX-10 Critical incident stress management and psychological services should continue to be available to EMS providers as needed.

Has your department already reviewed its operating procedure based on some of the recommendations above? Do you know of any emergency response tactics that you want to share that might benefit other departments?