By James Thalman
Just after 12:30 p.m. on Dec. 8, 2011, lightning struck a second time at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University: A 9-1-1 caller reported a shooter on campus and apparently on the loose. A campus police officer had been shot and killed during a routine traffic stop.
A sharp fear cut through the midsections of the campus’ first-responder personnel whose minds immediately flashed back to the morning of April 16, 2007, and the massacre of 32 students and faculty—an act that has become known across the country as higher education’s “9/11.” It ranks as the largest mass murder of college students since 36 Syracuse University students were killed in the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 on Dec. 21, 1988.
Although the Virginia Tech assailant—Ross Truett Ashley, a 22-year-old part-time student at Radford University, which is about a 30-minute drive away from Virginia Tech in Radford, Va.—had murdered Officer Deriek Crouse in a parking lot before killing himself with the same handgun about a half-mile away, the shooting was much smaller by orders of magnitude compared to the 2007 mass-casualty incident.
The combination “officer down/active assailant” alert caused a shock that was quickly mitigated by the fact that the school’s newly upgraded and fully operational, redundant, static-free alert system had already engaged.
The Blacksburg, Va., school’s emergency response plan, which was in the middle of an upgrade in April 2007, had been fully operational for at least two years before the Dec. 8, 2011, shooting, but it was the school’s first real test. Almost before first-responders could react in December, alerts were automatically routed to electronic message boards in classrooms and by text message to the estimated 96% of Virginia Tech’s 35,000 students who carry cell phones.
“We relayed the message immediately and via every possible communication link to get the word out,” said school spokesman Mark Owczarski.
A meridian event
Seung-Hui Cho, a senior-level undergraduate student at Virginia Tech, was armed with two handguns when he began his rampage at 7:15 a.m. on April 16, 2007, in the West Ambler Johnston residence hall, killing a student and an in-house advisor. The second and more serious part of the incident began about 9:40 a.m. after Cho had chained and locked the three exits to Norris Hall, the campus’ engineering faculty and classroom building that also houses foreign language lectures. In about 20 minutes, Cho shot a total of 47 students and faculty members, most of them murdered on the 2nd and 3rd floors where they were gathered for 9 a.m. classes.
The U.S. Department of Education deemed the campus response in 2007 an unintended yet inexcusable violation of standard high-alert/mass-casualty incident procedures in place on all public college campuses. A two-hour lag between the first shots that killed two students in the residence hall and a campus-wide danger alert is the most obvious disconnect, according to the department.
A detailed after-action assessment of the 2007 massacre, completed by an independent, blue ribbon committee under the auspices of former commonwealth Gov. Tim Kaine, provided a 150-page structural and staffing blueprint for upgrades. The existing system was inadequate. Although the university could broadcast a phone message, only students and faculty who had voluntarily registered their phone numbers would have received an alert. In addition, the system was cumbersome, requiring 11 separate actions to send a broadcast message to all registered numbers, an approach Owczarski deemed as “not useful” when time is critical.
Jaci Fox, who chairs the International Academies of Emergency Dispatch’s (IAED) Police Board of Curriculum and is an EPD and EPD-Q instructor, has examined the events of the 2007 massacre and what lessons could be learned for all dispatch centers from this unprecedented cautionary tale, which Virginia Tech had the misfortune to experience firsthand.
Taking a “nothing is so bad that something good can’t come from it” approach, Fox cited communications deficits that added to the turmoil, including a technologically outdated and understaffed call center, the chaotic interaction of responding agencies with one another, and the hesitation of the emergency administrative staff to deal with the incident.
According to Fox and former Priority Dispatch Corp. Police Consultant Eric Parry, the Virginia Tech Police Department erred in not insisting that university administrators handling the incident immediately issue a campus-wide notification that two persons had been killed and that all students and staff should be cautious and alert. The alert came more than two hours after the first two murders and about 10 minutes after the massacre was over and Cho lay dead from a self-inflicted gunshot wound as police closed in.
The incident was also a product of just plain bad luck, Fox said: Virginia Tech was a semester away from completing the installation of a unified, multimedia messaging system that would have significantly mitigated Cho’s ability to carry out the rampage. The upgrade, now in place, would have allowed university officials to send an emergency message in parallel to computers, cell phones, PDAs, and telephones—a system model that is the core of the current nationwide upgrade of NG9-1-1.
Had the system been complete, authorized users could have sent an alarm. Unfortunately, they did not have the technical means to do so in April.
Independent commission report
The independent commission’s report came up with the same conclusion, finding the breakdown in 2007 an issue known at virtually every communications center: disconnect. According to the report:
“Each jurisdiction having its own frequencies, radio types, dispatch centers, and procedures is a sobering example of the lack of economies of scale for emergency service. Local political entities must get past their inability to reach consensus and assure interoperability of their communications systems.”
The report concludes: Emergency services leaders and governmental entities require cooperation, consensus building, and the provision of adequate finances. “Failure to accomplish this goal leaves any region vulnerable to a similar situation in the future with potentially tragic results.”
In the wake of the shooting, Virginia Tech, along with campuses across the country, conducted internal reviews of emergency procedures, notification systems, and policies related to student behavior. According to a report by the Midwestern Higher Education Compact, many campuses are taking a “lessons learned” approach in re-evaluating their own emergency plans and dozens have implemented new or enhanced processes and technologies to improve communications and the mobilization of emergency resources.
Ironically, at the same time as the shooting this past December, Virginia Tech administrators were seeking a reduction in the fine during a meeting with education department staff in Washington, D.C.
School officials facing legal actions are hesitant to comment specifically on both incidents, but they said, generally speaking, that they couldn’t help but wonder if the steps taken to complete the alert system upgrades prevented the second shooting in 2011 from becoming much worse. It’s impossible to know if the 2007 incident might have been decidedly less severe if the alerts and the new response plan had been in place then.
“I like to think it was huge in that regard,” Owczarski said.