School finds that in emergency, practice makes perfect
ORONO, Maine—When the local police requested assistance from the University of Maine police department during an armed bank robbery, the university’s emergency management staff wasted no time activating its notification systems. Officials were concerned that the armed suspect, who had just robbed a bank adjacent to campus, may have fled onto school grounds.
The university sent out an initial emergency text message that read: “Armed robbery reported near campus. Suspect at large, possibly on campus. Seek safe shelter.” In addition, it also sounded a warning siren, posted information on its Web site, initiated pop-up messages on its computer network, and posted updated information to its telephone hotline, said Wayne Maines, director of safety and environmental management at the University of Maine, Orono.
To make things more challenging, the university was hosting several youth sports camps at the time of the incident. Maines said upon hearing the warning sirens and receiving the text messages, coaches and staff of the sports camp immediately moved participants into the gym and other safe areas until they received further notification. The university prepares for these camps the same way it does for other major events that occur on campus and coordinates with administrators to ensure that supervisors and coaches know emergency procedures.
While this was the first time the university had activated its system in response to a real threat, it was not the first time it had practiced this scenario, Maines said. University police and safety officials regularly conduct drills and exercises on the policies and procedures of the system and are constantly challenging themselves with different tabletop exercises, Maines said. “Having various communication systems is great, but you need to know how to use them,” he said. “We try to learn from other people’s experiences. When we hear about other universities having problems, during our monthly EOC meetings we practice those same scenarios,” he said.
This incident was the perfect example of why it’s so critical to have multifaceted means of communication during an emergency, said Maines. While he reported that the text messaging component was effective, the telephone hotline was also a critical means of providing updated, timely information. Also, the siren, which the university tests on a weekly basis, is also important to send out the initial warning to notify students and community members who may not have access to phones or computers. The use of social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter is also critical to getting the message out to students, he said.
“This was a great test and everything worked well, but I hope we don’t have to do it again any time soon,” Maines said.