The Collegian
Monday, November 29, 2021

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Richmond updates emergency response system

As university officials across the country have been evaluating their emergency response systems after a shooting at Virginia Tech left 33 dead last spring, University of Richmond administrators have made several updates of their own.

Steve Bisese, vice president for student development, said the shooting "caused us to re-think our training programs and communications." Although he added that Richmond has had a good safety record, "we can't get fooled into a false sense of security."

The university is more prepared now than it was before the Virginia Tech shooting, school officials say, but administrators recognize that the campus is a large community to protect, especially because of the many buildings and entrances.

"It's impossible to guarantee 100 percent safety," Bisese said.

University Police Chief Bob Dillard said although the recent updates have strengthened the university's preparedness for a potential shooter situation, the campus's safety system was still considered effective before the Virginia Tech shootings.

"Prior to Tech we were more prepared than the vast majority of colleges," Dillard said.

Before the Virginia Tech shooting, Richmond already had a response policy and hazardous entry training in place for years, the Emergency Response Team had been meeting regularly and firearms, except for those used by police officers, were outlawed on campus.

But after the shootings in April, members of the campus community recognized a sense of urgency to update the alert system, said Kathy Monday, vice president for information services.

"Tech really opened up people's consciousness about the need to communicate effectively," Monday said.

With the heightened awareness felt on college campuses, Richmond administrators took several steps to update campus safety, which included purchasing a new alert system, making security changes within campus buildings, holding an active shooter drill and creating a team of administrators to evaluate reports of troubled students.

"We want to be as safe as possible and also keep in mind not disrupting the education process," Bisese said.

NEW ALERT SYSTEM INCLUDES TEXT MESSAGING

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Information Services recently purchased Connect-ED, an emergency communication system, from the NTI group, providing a single way for campus officials to launch emergency communications across the entire campus.

The system, called UR Alert, can now send e-mails and leave voicemails on students' room phones in residence halls and. If students release their cell phone numbers, the system would call students' cell phones and, if students choose, directly send a text message.

UR Alert would also automatically call faculty and staff extension numbers, as well as their home and cell phones if they choose to enter their numbers into the system.

Doug West, director of Telecommunication Services, said Richmond administrators have known for some time that cell phones are the most effective way to reach students. But after the Virginia Tech shooting, the issue of emergency contact became more pressing, and administrators tried much harder to find solutions, he said.

Students received e-mails last spring as well as this summer with instructions for updating their contact information on BannerWeb. As of Monday, 2,281 Richmond students had entered their emergency contact information into BannerWeb, Boroughs said.

Bisese said any current undergraduate or graduate student is now included in the alert system.

During an emergency situation, the text messaging service, which will be ready Sept. 1, would send a short message advising students where to find additional information.

But in order to receive these messages, students must register for the program. Students will receive an e-mail sometime before Sept. 1 directing them to a Web site where they can opt-in for text messaging, Monday said. Students, faculty and staff will have about two weeks to enroll, and then there will be an all-systems test sometime during the third week of September, Monday said.

Another advantage of the new UR Alert system is that the NTI group monitors the success of phone calls and message deliveries and provides Information Services with reports about which numbers were and were not successful, Monday said.

If a message or call does not go through, the emergency message can be sent again, and Information Services can also check if there were numbers that were out of service, enabling them to remind students to update their information.

There are currently six people being trained to send out messages through the alert system, including faculty members from Information Services, the University Police Department, the Provost, Human Resources and the president's office.

"What comes to mind is what we've had most of are weather related emergencies, and mostly in the month of September," said Bisese, who hoped to assure students, faculty and staff that their cell phone numbers would be used only for emergency situations and never for solicitation. Monday said a number of other schools are using the Connect-ED alert system, including Princeton University, the University of Notre Dame and the College of William and Mary.

TIGHTER SECURITY IN CAMPUS BUILDINGS

Although classrooms were equipped with phones before security updates were even considered, these classroom phones have been updated so that it is now possible to directly contact the police department during an emergency. The system also gives campus officials the capability of broadcasting a message over an intercom to all classrooms, Dillard said.

Panic hardware on double doors was also replaced, and locks will be installed inside all classroom doors throughout this semester so that students can lock themselves inside classrooms. Monday added that a new tornado warning system was also set up.

Information Services is continuing to look into computer screen messaging for emergency alerts, which would allow campus officials to send messages to all campus computers in teaching spaces. This software is in its final testing stages and should be operational soon, Monday said.

ACTIVE SHOOTER DRILL

The University Police Department held an active shooter drill in North Court on August 9, which included 18 faculty and staff members as role players, Dillard said.

The active shooter training was held as part of the 40 hours of in service training officers receive annually. The yearly training often includes additional programs focused on situations that are timely and appropriate.

"There's nothing more timely than active shooter training," he said.

During the drill, as role players were acting as students, faculty and staff members, some of whom pretended to be shot or yelled at officers, university police officers responded in teams and Richmond city police officers gave them instruction, Dillard said.

Bisese was acting as a disgruntled employee, he said, and the officers had him cornered with his hands in the air immediately after he began yelling.

The Emergency training program, which is given to resident assistants and freshman, was also held for faculty and staff this year for the first time. This training, which teaches participants what to do and what not to do during an emergency, had been slightly adjusted after the shooting at Virginia Tech, but was basically the same as it had been, Dillard said.

Every student received emergency training as a freshmen, but refresher training sessions are offered to student groups or organizations who request it.

TEAM DEVELOPED TO ASSESS TROUBLED STUDENTS

This semester, when students moved into their dorm rooms and apartments, they found a handout amongst a pile of papers titled, "In the Event of an Active Shooter."

The handout, which also included warning signs for "troubled students," was normally given to freshman only, but campus officials wanted everyone to see it this year, Dillard said.

Bisese said campus officials wanted to reinforce to students, faculty and staff that if anyone notices a student is troubled in "any kind of alarming way," such as threatening to harm or kill others, possessing firearms and talking about suicide, a dean should be contacted immediately.

The dean's staff will refer all reports of students it assesses as dangerous to a team of faculty and staff who would evaluate it further, Bisese said.

This team, which was developed by Student Affairs, includes either the Westhampton or Richmond College deans, Bisese, CAPS director Peter LeViness and, if necessary, members of the Chaplaincy, University Police Department and Health Center.

Bisese said that although this team hopes to refer students to the appropriate voluntary treatment, decisions must be made to keep the community safe with the well-being of everyone in mind.

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