By Zach Winn · April 13, 2017
It may seem hard to believe, but April 16, 2017, is the 10-year anniversary of the Virginia Tech shooting. The tragedy claimed the lives of 32 people and left the country grieving and in shock.
The shooting also opened everyone’s eyes to the importance of emergency preparedness and marked the beginning of an overhaul of campus emergency operations that has transformed the way many college public safety departments function.
The anniversary should be about honoring the victims and survivors of the attack, but it also presents an opportunity to examine changes in the emergency management community since that fateful day. Reviewing how far campus security has come in the past decade can be useful to ensure something like the Virginia Tech shooting never happens again.
One thing is clear after talking with campus security professionals around the country: The shooting still occupies a prominent space in many people’s minds. Indeed, a review of the incident commissioned by former Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine noted, “April 16 has become the 9/11 for colleges and universities.”
Virginia Tech Emergency Preparedness on the Day of the Shooting
April 16, 2007 was a cold, windy Monday in Blacksburg, Va. A lot was happening at the university that day, notably construction work on several buildings that made the sound of loud bangs and machinery normal.
2007 Virginia Tech Profile
Virginia Tech University has a 2,600-acre campus with 131 buildings. In 2007, 26,370 students were enrolled, with approximately 9,000 living in dormitories. The university also employed slightly more than 7,000 people.
The campus was open, with 16 road entryways and multiple fields providing opportunities to walk onto campus unchecked. The Virginia Tech Police Department is a fully accredited police force and is widely considered one of the strongest departments in the northeast.
In 2007, it had an emergency response team and 35 total police officers. It also had established a mutual aid agreement with the Blacksburg Police Department for immediate assistance. The two departments had regularly trained together, including an active shooter training session that took place shortly before the mass shooting.
VT Police Chief Wendell Flinchum says the close relationship between the departments was the key to executing a coordinated response on the day of the shooting.
On the day of the Virginia Tech shooting, residence halls had an electronic card reader system for dormitories. Most other buildings had no electronic controls, which made remote lockdowns impossible. No video surveillance cameras were installed on the campus and there were no locks on classroom doors.
At that time, Virginia Tech was in the process of implementing an emergency messaging system and installing six outdoor loudspeakers on campus. The messaging system wasn’t operational until the following semester, however, and the four loudspeakers that had been installed by April 16 did not play a significant role in the response.
The school was also about to conduct a search to fill a newly-created director of emergency management position. Virginia Tech had an email alert system with more than 36,000 registered email addresses and a website it used for emergency warnings. A broadcast phone system was also in place that allowed officials to send messages to faculty members and students who had voluntarily registered their phones. Most students had not registered for the alert system in April of 2007.
The university’s emergency response plan (ERP) called for a group made up of nine vice presidents and chaired by the university president, known as the policy group, to support emergency operations and determine recovery priorities. Underneath the policy group, the ERP also called for an emergency response coordinator to lead a response and an emergency operations center to be established. The ERP did not include provisions specific for an active shooter scenario and did not reference preventive measures like threat assessment teams.
The Virginia Tech Shooting Begins
The incident began with two fatal shootings in a dorm room of the West Ambler Johnston residence hall around 7:15 a.m. VTPD officers and a VTPD rescue squad responded and began a preliminary investigation.
Although the shooter was later determined to be Seung-Hui Cho, immediately after the initial shootings, a suspect description could not be made. A friend of one of the victims informed campus police that the victim was usually dropped off at the dorm by her boyfriend on Monday mornings. She also told police the victim’s boyfriend was an active gun user, which led police to consider him a suspect in the case.
Officers could not find the boyfriend’s vehicle in any of the campus parking lots, giving them confidence that he was not on campus.
At 9:26 a.m. the university sent an email to students, faculty and staff informing them of the dormitory shooting. Around 15 minutes later, Cho began the second phase of his attack across campus at Norris Hall.
A 911 call was transferred to the VTPD at 9:42 a.m., and a second email was sent to all Virginia Tech email addresses at 9:50 a.m. stating, “A gunman is loose on campus. Stay in buildings until further notice. Stay away from all windows.”
The four outdoor loudspeakers broadcast a similar message as authorities, including the Blacksburg and university ERTs, responded to the shooting at Norris Hall. Additional emails were sent out after police cleared the second floor of Norris Hall and discovered the deceased body of Cho.
The courageous actions of the responding EMS personnel in the immediate aftermath of the shooting have been rightly labelled heroic. Gene Deisinger, who consulted with Virginia Tech officials after the shooting and later accepted a position as the university’s deputy chief of police and director of threat management services, thinks the medical response deserves more praise.
“Of all the people injured in the shooting that were still alive when law enforcement made entry, every one of them survived,” he says.
The effectiveness of the response was due in part to the two tactical medics attached to the Virginia Tech and Blacksburg ERTs. Some members of the ERTs also had extensive medical training.
After the attack, recommendations issued by the governor’s review panel relating to university emergency preparedness and alerts included:
- Universities should conduct threat assessments before deciding on the appropriate level of security for their campus
- University threat assessment teams should include law enforcement, human resources, student and academic affairs, legal counsel and mental health services
- Students, faculty and staff members should undergo annual emergency preparedness, response and notification training
- Emergency communications systems must have multiple means of sharing information
- Campus police and administration officials should have the ability to send emergency messages
Deisinger says the Virginia Tech shooting is one of the most scrutinized security incidents in higher education history and encourages his peers to review the resulting material.
Continue reading to learn how the Virginia Tech shooting changed the way colleges see emergency preparedness forever.