In crisis, admins underscore communication

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Photo by Raleigh Cavero.

When reports of a gunman on Yale’s campus surfaced last Monday, administrators set into motion a series of procedures that they had hoped would never be necessary.

In the wake of the scare — which began from an anonymous phone call to the New Haven Police Department and resulted in a campus-wide lockdown and room-by-room search of Old Campus — administrators told the News that they believe the University’s reactions to the situation were fast and effective, with campus-wide communication and emergency response plans smoothly put into effect.

Students who were on and off campus during the incident echoed administrators’ opinions about the response to the scare, though many added that they believe the University could have provided more regular updates.

“While we feel that the University responded quite well to the situation, there will always be areas for improvement,” University President Peter Salovey told the News over the weekend. “But generally, I’d like to stress that this incident went remarkably smoothly from an operational standpoint.”

PLANNING FOR THE UNTHINKABLE

The administration’s response on Monday was not improvised. According to University Director of Emergency Management Maria Bouffard, Yale maintains extensive emergency plans that cover situations including threats of a shooting on campus.

The plan implemented last week — along with plans for other events such as hurricanes, power outages or floods — was developed through the University’s emergency operations team, a group of roughly 50 Yale department heads and other University administrators. The team, led by Bouffard and University Vice President Linda Lorimer, meets regularly to conduct tabletop exercises, in which the group walks through potential scenarios and develops responses.

Providing information to the Yale community is a major part of the University’s plan for incidents, such as Monday’s, in which law enforcement officials play a major role.

“We did implement our emergency communications plan and were pleased with the way it worked, getting timely information out to our community,” Bouffard said, adding that the University’s loudspeaker system played a critical role in providing information to the Yale community.

As the whereabouts and eventually even the existence of the gunman became increasingly unclear, Yale shifted into a crisis mode. The group in charge of the emergency response quickly formed, led by Senior Adviser to the President Martha Highsmith and including Lorimer, Bouffard, Associate Vice President for Administration Janet Lindner and University Chief Communications Officer Elizabeth Stauderman.

While the responsibility for finding the gunman fell to the police, a group of administrators led by Highsmith in Woodbridge Hall distributed information to students, staff and faculty members about the potential danger.

The administrators made use of the Yale Alert system — which sends email, text messages and phone calls to the Yale community — along with Twitter and the speakers located throughout University buildings. Through the Yale Alert system, administrators sent 10 text messages and six emails with updates on the developing situation. In addition, the University posted eight tweets related to the gunman scare, all of which conveyed similar information to the text messages and emails.

The team of administrators also coordinated with both Yale Police and the NHPD. Highsmith and Lindner served as points of communication for the two police forces, according to Salovey, and were “informed on an up-to-the-minute basis.”

“The day also reinforced the strong partnerships developed with other law enforcement agencies, particularly New Haven Police and the FBI,” Lindner said, adding that local, state and federal law enforcement representatives frequently participate in the University’s emergency management team sessions.

COMMUNICATING IN A CRISIS 

Students interviewed said they were largely satisfied with how the University kept them informed throughout the anxiety-riddled day. YCC Communications Director Andrew Grass ’16 said the University “definitely let students know what was going on,” describing the emergency system as effective.

Still, a gap in communications from the University in the early afternoon caused some students to suggest that Yale should have sent more frequent updates.

At 11:55 a.m., a Yale Alert message reiterated that the shelter-in-place order remained across campus. The next University-wide communication came nearly two hours later at 1:45 p.m., when a Yale Alert message announced that police would conduct a room-to-room search of campus.

“[The alerts] could have been more frequent even if they were repeating themselves,” Austin Bryniarski ’16 said. Grass expressed the same sentiment.

Students on Old Campus, which was the center of the search for the gunman, expressed frustration about receiving mixed messages from administrators and law enforcement officials as to whether they could leave campus for the Thanksgiving holiday during the lockdown.

Greg Wang ’17, who lives in Bingham Hall on Old Campus, said he rescheduled several train tickets after receiving the shelter-in-place orders. But after asking an FBI officer through an open window whether or not he could leave, the officer — contrary to the University’s messages — told Wang he was free to go.

“The restricted zone ended two feet away from my door,” said Wang, who eventually left Bingham at 3:45 p.m., several hours after he planned to depart.

While Yale College students said they were generally satisfied with the communication they received from the University, other members of the Yale community were far less positive about Yale’s response.

At Yale-New Haven Hospital, where many Yale students and faculty were working and studying, information appeared far less abundant.

“I really had zero idea what was happening, and what areas were safe or to be avoided. The few text message and email warnings were nonspecific and repetitive,” Travis Rabbit MED ’14 said. “From [the hospital] and the medical school campus, the warnings issued by loudspeaker were just muffled noise. CNN provided better updates on where to avoid than the campus warning system.”

With most students away from campus for the Thanksgiving holiday and only occasional updates from Yale’s emergency system, many turned to social media sites for information on the suspected gunman. Twitter was a particularly active source of information for some students, as Yale and New Haven news publications posted updates on developments.

EMERGENCIES TO COME

Yale College Dean Mary Miller, who was in New York for much of the day but communicated through email with the parents of Yale College students, said that the importance of regular tabletop exercises was the most significant lesson she learned from the day. Other administrators expressed similar sentiments about the importance of planning for a variety of scenarios.

But despite the general success of the University’s plans last week, an “after incident” group has now formed to assess and improve Yale’s procedures, which Bouffard described as standard operating procedure. Last Tuesday, she met with Lorimer to begin discussing the incident and possible refinements to University responses for future situations.

In a Sunday email to the News, Bouffard said the full emergency operations team will meet in the coming days to further discuss Yale’s response to the gunman scare.

“We are reviewing all aspects of the day, as we do in any emergency situation on campus, to learn what we can that might improve our protocols, and to reaffirm what worked well,” Lindner said.

None of the administrators interviewed elaborated on what aspects of the University’s response might be altered. But Bouffard said that the incident showed there were some members of the community who did not receive the Yale Alerts, which the University will seek to rectify. She also added that the emergency management team is currently searching for ways to include other individuals around campus — such as visitors, surrounding residents and business-owners — in the Yale Alert system.

Salovey said that even if the incident is proven to be a hoax, he believes that the University benefited from the experience by learning how to better structure its future response plans.

“We are now even better prepared to address any emergency situation like this that may arise in the future,” Salovey said — though he added that he “fervently hopes it will not.”

 

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