The Virginia Tech Shooting’s Impact on Emergency Preparedness

Emergency preparedness measures on campuses are unrecognizable compared to how they looked before the Virginia Tech shooting.
Published: 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.”

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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.”

A map of the Virginia Tech campus shows where the shooting occurred. (via Goveror’s Panel Report)

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.

The Virginia Tech Shooting Changed the Emergency Preparedness Industry

Amanda Guthorn, then the director of public safety at Keene State College, remembers watching the reports come out and thinking, “What would I do if this happened on my campus?” Security professionals around the country were thinking the same thing.

Dave Bujak, who is currently the emergency preparedness manager at the University of Rochester, was working in a similar position with Florida State University in 2007. On the day of the Virginia Tech shooting, he was hosting a meeting of police chiefs in the Atlantic Coast Conference.

Every chief in the conference was there with the notable exception of Virginia Tech Police Chief Wendell Flinchum.

“When we got word of the original shooting, we agreed it sounded like an isolated one-off murder,” Bujak says. “Then when the second shooting broke, that’s when the jaws dropped. Like everyone else, we were caught up in the news and just in shock taking it all in. Thank god Chief Flinchum wasn’t with us.”

Guthorn says she remembers exactly where she was when she heard about the second shooting.

The Virginia Tech Shooting’s Impact on Mental Health

Following the mass shooting, it was discovered that the shooter had been ruled mentally ill by a judge in 2005. The shooter’s mental health records, however, were never turned into a database that would have prevented him from purchasing guns.

Virginia’s governor at the time, Tim Kaine, soon signed an executive order requiring the names of people who received involuntary treatment for mental illness to be sent to the FBI’s National Instant Criminal Background Check System to bar them from purchasing guns until a court declared them stable. The state also modified the criteria for involuntary commitment and increased funding for community mental health services.

In the beginning of 2008, then President George W. Bush signed a law strengthening the background check system and providing funding for states to continuously update it.

“I remember the overwhelming sense of sadness, and I also remember thinking that my job had stepped through a new portal,” she says. “It really changed the industry and challenged us to review the way we do business.”

At the time of the Virginia Tech shooting, the few emergency preparedness and emergency manager positions that existed at schools were predominantly focused on threats from severe weather and earthquakes.

Bujak says the Virginia Tech shooting was like a “big lightbulb” that went off in administrator’s heads. Flinchum agrees.

“It brought campus security to the forefront of most people’s minds,” he says. “Students, parents, administrators, it made everyone in the country think if it could happen to us, it could happen to them.”

Deisinger notes that the complexity and scale of the attack created a perfect storm for officials to reflect on their security protocols.

“It highlighted the whole spectrum of emergency preparedness and management in higher education, from prevention and mitigation to response capabilities,” Deisinger says. “Because it wasn’t just the university, a lot of local agencies were overwhelmed as well. It showed that campus emergency preparedness couldn’t develop by itself. It has to develop in concert with community resources and capabilities.”

Changes began happening at the state level immediately. Around the country, emergency preparedness task forces were being formed, attorneys general were being commissioned to evaluate school security and recommendations were being made for emergency response standards and requirements.

The first winter after the shooting, Flinchum invited university security representatives to Virginia Tech to learn about the university’s experience.

Also in 2007, the International Association of Emergency Managers (IAEM) created a university committee at their annual meeting. Bujak considers that first IAEM committee meeting, which only 15 people attended, to be the birth of the emergency management profession in the higher education industry.

These days, the Disaster Resilient University Network has more than 1,500 members from around 800 institutions.

“You can see that schools started taking emergency management seriously,” Bujak says. “Now [emergency managers] have all these conferences and symposiums, and people are constantly in contact with one another. It hasn’t been one massive wave of improvement at these institutions but a series of waves toward improvement. Every day it seems like there’s somebody new, and that’s all grown out of the first IAEM meeting.”

Hamp will share her personal experience during the attack and talk about her journey to recovery in a keynote speech. Hamp was in a classroom in Norris Hall when the second shooting began. Her class built a barricade that successfully prevented the shooter from entering her classroom.

In the years following the shooting, Hamp struggled to live a normal life and eventually sought counseling. To learn more about the presentation or register, click here.

Changes were also made on the national level. The National Instant Criminal Background Check System Improvement Amendments Act of 2007 authorized up to $1.3 billion to be spent on preventing criminals and the mentally ill from purchasing guns.

The Department of Education also clarified the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) to streamline the transfer of information between departments and agencies.

In 2008, the Clery Act was amended to require colleges and universities to send out emergency notifications in a timely manner during crisis situations. The International Association of Campus Law Enforcement Administrators (IACLEA) released a statement against the carrying of concealed weapons on college campuses by people other than sworn police officers on duty.

The Aftermath Remains Difficult

As the shock of the incident faded, understandable anger and inevitable finger pointing began.

The Center for American Progress estimates that the tragedy cost Virginia Tech and the local and federal governments more than $48 million. Those costs included the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights’ $27,500 fine in 2012 for violating the Clery Act after a federal judge overturned a previous fine of $55,000.

Virginia Tech officials considered challenging the department’s findings, but former Vice President for University Relations Lawrence Hincker said they decided it wouldn’t be appropriate given the emotional impact the appeal would have on the community.

The governor’s panel report characterized the emergency response of the police and emergency medical services to the shooting at Norris Hall as “prompt and effective.”

Bujak says the people in the campus security profession sympathize with Virginia Tech’s experience.

“Nobody that I know or respect faults Virginia Tech, because you can’t hold them to an [emergency preparedness] standard that didn’t exist at the time,” he says. “Everybody sort of had the same wakeup call of, ‘If this happened at our university, we would’ve performed the same way or even worse in terms of emergency notification.’ That stuff just wasn’t part of the norm before.”

Guthorn agrees with that reasoning.

“I feel badly for Virginia Tech because people were so quick to blame them,” she says. “It’s easy to cri
ticize in hindsight, but when you’re in the business of making difficult decisions in an extremely compressed amount of time under stressful circumstances, you just have to make the best decision you can with the information available. That’s what the Virginia Tech Police Department did.”

That doesn’t make things any easier for Flinchum, who says he will always mourn the victims of the Virginia Tech shooting.

“It’s extremely difficult,” he says. “I still think about the victims every day. Every single day.”

Things Will Never Be the Same

First a candlelight vigil was held on Virginia Tech’s campus the day after the shooting. Then the Hokie Spirit Memorial Fund was formed to honor the victims and provide financial support for families, grief counseling and other comfort expenses. By early June, the fund had raised approximately $7 million.

Makeshift memorials popped up everywhere on campus. Eventually an official memorial was erected on the campus’s drill field that includes 32 pieces of Hokie Stone in honor of the victims and two benches on either side of the memorial in honor of the survivors.

“One area the media missed was the community support that the university and police department experienced,” Flinchum says.

On the night after the shooting, Virginia Tech’s traditional rival, the University of Virginia, also held a candlelight vigil for the victims and survivors of the attack.

During the vigil, UVA President John T. Casteen urged a packed crowd of students to move forward from the tragedy and change the world.

Indeed, whether anyone in the crowd knew it or not, the world had already changed.

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