Chances are the campus police force or security team at a Midwestern university will deal with more fires, power tages, and incidences of public drunkenness than a single terrorist attack.
“We can’t ignore the potential threat [of a terrorist attack],” says John A. Peach, director of Public Safety at Kent State University in Kent, OH. “But, in terms of what the risks are and the compelling information we have from federal and local agencies, we have to assume natural disasters, life-safety, and public safety issues not related to terrorism are what we have to plan for and to prepare for without turning a blind eye to homeland security.”
That said, Peach and other administrative officials at Ohio’s second largest public university still reassessed the institution’s Emergency Management Plan (EMP) and updated facilities and systems across campus with new security technology in the aftermath of 9/11.
“We’ve diligently kept it current over the years but after 9/11, we added what we considered to be relevant sections,” says Michael S. McDonald, director of Campus Environment and Operations, about the EMP. Prior to 9/11, the plan contained sections covering weather, utility outages, civil disobedience, and major fires. New additions cover wartime scenarios, including terrorist and biological threats.
Safety officials also decided to upgrade the university’s emergency communication network. This upgrade consists of two major enhancements: one affecting most facilities on campus; the other affecting the campus’ internal radio communications among various departments.
About 28,000 attend the university’s main Kent campus, which employs about 6,000 faculty and staff members within roughly 120 facilities on or near the main campus complex. Most administrative and academic buildings and all residence halls now have a new paging system that puts the campus police department’s central dispatch in direct contact with a point person in each building via radio frequency monitoring in the event of an emergency.
The sophisticated paging system consists of a communications box with a removable, remote pager. The building contact person, usually the designated building curator, simply activates the system at the box or through the remote pager and reaches the dispatcher. The dispatcher also can reach the building point persons in the event they need to relay information, whether it is a tornado warning or a terrorist situation.
The system mainly is in effect during regular daytime operating hours. After hours, in buildings that are open for night classes and other evening activities, the police have a contact network established with the maintenance staff.
The new system provides university officials with a concise way to get pertinent safety news spread throughout the campus quickly, efficiently, and accurately. “We found out on 9/11 that we had an ineffective means of getting information out to the campus population,” Peach says. “It was kind of like the kids’ game where you whisper into each other’s ears, and the message that comes out on the other side isn’t the same one from the beginning. It added to the anxiety and panic.”
Campus safety officials also discovered on 9/11 that the existing radio frequency network in place couldn’t hold up to massive internal communications in the event of a major crisis, so this summer, they’ve been developing a more sophisticated trunking system.
Prior to this effort, each of the campus’ departments that rely on radio communications – food service, maintenance, the heating plant, security aides, parking services, and campus police, to name only a few – use their own separate frequencies to communicate with others in their respective departments.
As they found out on 9/11, an emergency can cause the network to gridlock and jam when each department is online at the same time, competing for a limited number of open frequencies. On 9/11, radio communication across campus virtually shut down for a short time.
The new trunking system will prevent this gridlock from happening by giving all users the ability to communicate without competing for frequencies. It automatically determines what frequency is open to transmit and still gives each department its own private frequency. Parking services will still communicate only with parking services and not intercept messages from food services, for example, Peach says. The system will operate from a base on a new radio tower installed for the campus’ National Public Radio affiliate and classical music station, WKSU.
For those not on radio frequencies or in direct contact with central dispatch, security officials have fine-tuned the campus’ broadcast voice-mail system and also are working on a way to announce campus-related emergencies on the university’s website so that status updates can be obtained from any location.
After 9/11, Peach and McDonald’s offices received numerous calls from university employees concerned about safety issues. As a result, they created an Emergency Response Handbook. This pocket-sized book provides faculty and staff with a “how-to” guide that summarizes emergency procedures in a step-by-step approach based on the kind of scenario encountered. “It gives you a sense that there are plenty of plans in effect for any emergency and that people will be informed when or if the time comes,” Peach says.