Unthinkable Thoughts

Published 4:33 pm Thursday, January 5, 2012

FARMVILLE – The hostage situation in the high-rise dorm on Tuesday was a drill.

The man with a gun on Brock Commons was part of a training scenario.

The active shooters in South Tabb were law-enforcement role-players helping to test Longwood University's Emergency Alert System.

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Because one day the man with the gun might be real.

As it was all too real at Virginia Tech.

The unthinkable might become a thought, the thought could become a deed, and that deed could usurp and swallow the destiny of innocent people.

Unless Longwood, its police department and area law enforcement participating in this week's crisis response drill get their response exactly right.

Farmville's geography doesn't create an oasis of perpetual peace and security for Longwood students or any one else who lives or works in town.

“We're stuck between Richmond and Lynchburg, a mobile community that's tied together by (Route) 460. Gang activity, drug dealers, all of that stuff in and around,” Longwood University Police Chief Bob Beach told The Herald this week. “We're a focal point for a lot of those people. The potential for something bad to happen here is very high.”

Thinking of the law enforcement community on and off campus, Chief Beach declares, “I think we do a damn good job of providing the resources to keep it safe here.”

But if something happens, it won't be at a time and place most convenient for law enforcement to respond.

“Today we're going to have a lot of people sitting waiting for it to happen,” Chief Beach said of the day-long training session on Tuesday that saw State Police join LU police officers, Farmville police and the Prince Edward County Sheriff's Department. “But if it happens at 10 o'clock tonight what's on the street is going to have to deal with it and manage it for a couple of hours until the rest of the resources get here. That's why things like today are so important.”

Chief Beach wants people to understand there's “a tight, close working relationship with the first responders in this community. (Farmville Police Chief) Doug Mooney has been such a great help. And the working relationship between the two departments working together is so important.”

It must be so.

It cannot be otherwise and still get the job done.

Longwood's Board of Visitors has recently revised its Emergency Alert System policy (see accompanying page one story) and Chief Beach and his staff don't let a day go by without testing it. But periodic training exercises bring together the law enforcement responders who would rush to the campus were the crisis ever real.

“After the last Virginia Tech incident I got a call from the State Police and they said, 'You know, we really do need to come down and we need to partner up, look at how we would (work together with all the players) if something bad happened there.”

On any given calendar date, during the day Chief Beach knows he may have just four or five officers working and at night two or three of them. Just as he knows the Town of Farmville will have three or four police officers on duty.

“So properly managing resources and bringing resources to the scene quickly is very important,” Chief Beach said.

The Emergency Alert System is a big portion of that.

“Not just to alert the campus but it's a catalyst for kicking off a lot of other resource-gathering when it starts to happen,” Chief Beach said. “So that is what the whole purpose of today is, to kind of test it a little bit.

“I think we've done enough with the alert system that we'll notify the campus very quickly,” he said of any genuine crisis. “By putting the (coded danger) levels in…that gives a pretty clear set of responsibilities to the people involved. One of the things we learned at the first Virginia Tech incident is that it can't be a decision made by a committee. When a crisis occurs, people in responsible positions need to make the call, let people know what's happening, and get resources started and get people to secure themselves up.”

That's the reason why, the police chief said, “I think they (Virginia Tech) took a big hit. I think it's the reason why every university in the nation then took a hard look at how those decisions are made.”

Longwood's previous alert system policy “talked about calling the cabinet and getting them to make a decision,” Chief Beach said. “…At two o'clock in the morning that don't work…and the potential is it could happen at two o'clock in the morning. So we needed some logical ways and we thought the three levels was a good version. We used a color code, which was kind of a playing off of the Homeland Security color codes. I think it works good for us.”

Some might believe that quickly and effectively alerting the campus is half the equation in a crisis response.

Not Chief Beach.

“I think it's only a tenth of the equation. All this does is that it tells people…And I'll be honest with you, when this goes off (the alarm stuff)…if it goes off at 10 o'clock at night, as soon as the siren goes off and that alert goes off, as soon as the text message and the email goes out, within minutes what that's done is opened up a can of worms.”

A tsunami of frantic phone calls.

“If your child was 300, 400 miles away and you suddenly got a message that there's a man with a gun on campus,” Chief Beach said, “you're going to want to get in touch with your child and you're going to want to know what's the university's doing. Now that's the reason why part of the policy is we're trying the best we can to get people to understand 'Don't call us. Go to the website, we'll update you with every bit of information.' That's the public relations side of it. That's what they'll do. They become part of this initial response team and they're going to be putting out real live-time updates as to what's going on.”

Chief Beach has been in law enforcement for 42 years and he has 30 years of special operations experience.

“In crises, there's three things you run out of very, very quickly… and you learn the first thing you do is you get overwhelmed by information, of which, somehow or another, you have to sort through-what's real, what's important, and what's not important,” he related.

“The other thing that you do is you run out of resources very quickly. Those four officers or five officers or six officers that you've got immediately available are used up and now you've got to reach out and draw in those others.”

And then use them to immediate and optimal effectiveness.

Life and death hangs in the balance.

“This training today, I know we're going to find that there are weaknesses or there are concerns, but what we hope to do is run through some scenarios, get the players who are going to be the players if something happens here to start thinking about these issues. Come up with some what-ifs-if this happened or that happened we could do this or we could do that-to maximize the resource capability if something bad ever does happen,” Longwood's police chief said.

The police chief has absolute confidence in the Emergency Alert System's ability to contact the campus community and alert them, for their own safety, which is even more vital than one might assume.

“Here's the reality-Virginia Tech, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Delaware, any of the places where you've seen these things happen-unfortunately the people that die, die within the first minute, two minutes of the event. The people that get saved are the ones that save themselves because they know the event's occurring, they get notification, and they're able to secure themselves and they get themselves out of harm's way,” Chief Beach said. “That's a big portion of what the alert system's supposed to do.”

In the course of a lengthy interview, Chief Beach uses the word “guarantee” only once.

“I will guarantee that this alert system will work perfect,” he said. “They (dispatchers) practice that every day. Sometimes multiple times a day. I'll walk in there and say, 'This just happened, what do you do?'”

That question must also be asked, and answered by faculty, staff and students.

Last year, Longwood started a program on campus called Code Red, which started training the campus community on what they should do when the alert system goes off.

“We had the alert system in place,” Chief Beach said, “and I would ask someone, 'What are you going to do if it goes off?' and a lot of people would say, 'That's a good question. I really hadn't thought about this.'”

They have now.

“When everybody comes through here we encourage them to go through the Code Red, what we call Code Red 101, where we talk about how the (alert) system works and what are the things that they should do, or they should consider. Because the reality is I can't tell a professor that's teaching at Hull what they're supposed to do when (the alert) goes off. It depends on what your capabilities are and where it's happening and so forth,” he said, “but we want to generate thought and discussion and give them some options.”

Longwood, meanwhile, has spent almost $50,000 to install classroom door locks.

Not ones that lock from the outside.

Locks that are engaged by those inside the class, who need to lock themselves in and lock out the danger.

“The majority of the educational classrooms on campus had no way to lock the door from inside. So we had to put those in there. That's something we learned from Virginia Tech-to be able to lock yourself in the room,” Chief Beach said.

So there are now locks.

But also words meant to communicate with the same safety-producing precision.

“We talked about where to hide, how to hide, what to do, how to respond,” he said.

The second level of the on-campus training is Code Red 102, which sees students become role players to demonstrate the actions behind the life-saving words.

It's a two-hour program, to recap a little of what was done in Code Red 101 before taking it to the next level.

“We actually unfold before the class an event-an active shooter suddenly shows up in the hallway and there's screaming and yelling,” Chief Beach relates. “What do you do? We stand the class up and they start to respond…We freeze-frame some of it and talk through it. So we're trying to get as many people thinking about the issue…Not to be getting people in a position where they're worried all the time…But I do want them thinking about it. I want it somewhere in their memory banks…and when this alert goes off then at least some of that may regurgitate back.”

The alert system (as detailed in the accompanying page one article) is really made up of various components that use different means of communication, the versatility meant to increase the odds that everyone, or virtually everyone, will be notified.

First, there is a siren, followed by the audible warning that gives specific information about the crisis.

Chief Beach estimates that the siren and verbal warning will alert probably 40 or 50 percent of the population on campus.

“Then goes the text alert and the email. And that will cover, I think, another, maybe, 50 percent of the population,” Chief Beach said.

The fourth element is basic.

Word of mouth.

“We're telling students…once you see the alert everybody you see you tell them, 'Hey, this alert's going.' Between those four elements I am very, very confident that the majority, 99 percent of the population, (will be alerted). Could there be one or two that don't get it? I guess there could. But I think this is about as totally covering as best we can. If there was another way, certainly we'd be looking at it.”

Chief Beach and his staff took a long hard look at the alert system and law enforcement's response to the training exercises meant to test it on Tuesday.

They are heartened by what they saw.

“I consider it a great success,” Chief Beach summed up on Wednesday afternoon. “It accomplished all that I had intended. It introduced the campus facilities to more of our law enforcement partners, we identified new challenges that such events and coordinated response would generate, and we found that the hard work by the LUPD staff put in to develop policies and capabilities had paid off and the polices and procedures worked well.”

Chief Beach and his police department staff will generate a more detailed after action report and share it with their law enforcement partners who participated in Tuesday's drill. The intent of that document will be to “allow us all to grow from the experience and allow us to prepare for the next time we come together to train and practice,” he said, adding that “the lessons learned will also be shared with the university administration so as to facilitate discussion and action on the next steps in preparation for what we hope will never happen.”

Because one day, against all hopes, the man with the gun could be real.