Staging an Emergency on Campus

Rollins tests how emergency personnel would respond to an active shooter on campus.

On Wednesday, January 8, a single male entered the first floor of Crummer Hall armed with an AK-47 and a Glock 17. He opened fire in the lobby before exiting the building. In his wake, four were dead and two were wounded.

So began the emergency exercise.

Played by a Winter Park Police Department (WPPD) officer, the gunman continued to act out the scenario, ultimately killing six and wounding eight as he walked across campus to Hooker Hall, a residence hall. That’s where the SWAT team, with strips of yellow police tape tied around their weapons, apprehended him. (Per the Department of Homeland Security, ammunition had to be removed from all firearms to ensure safety.) The victims were played by Rollins students enrolled in Assistant Professor of English Jana Mathews' intersession class, Naked & Afraid: Survivalists and Hunter-Gatherers in Pop Culture.

Though it was staged, Rollins Campus Safety, WPPD, the Winter Park Fire Department (WPFD), and the Orange County Office of Emergency Management (OCEM) responded to the unfolding scene as if it was a real-world emergency.

And that was the point: To test how emergency personnel would respond if a similar situation was to occur on campus.

According to a recent study posted on the FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin website, mass shooting incidents are increasing, with 110 active shooter incidents identified between 2000–12. “In fact, the number of [active shooter] events drastically increased following 2008,” the report states. “The rate at which these events occurred went from approximately 1 every other month between 2000 and 2008 (5 per year) to more than 1 per month between 2009 and 2012 (almost 16 per year).” Though business locales were the most frequently attacked locations, “schools, both K–12 and institutions of higher education, were the second-most attacked locations.”

“In terms of reviewing our risk and assessing our vulnerability, [mass shootings] are at the top of the list,” says Greg Fisher, Rollins safety and emergency planning coordinator. “Above tornadoes, above thunderstorms, above hurricanes, but below fires. Violent criminals are some of the biggest threats to campus, so that’s what you want to try to test and work your way down [from there].”

Funded by a grant from the Department of Homeland Security, the exercise was intended to evaluate current response plans should such an incident occur on campus. This included testing the ability to respond to an active shooter and secure the campus, as well as the capacity to establish timely communications for responders and the campus community.

“[The Clery Act] mandates that you have a method to communicate emergency information effectively and quickly to your campus community,” Director of Campus Safety Ken Miller says. “While officers responded to the scene unfolding on the ground, a team of administrators and communicators made decisions and drafted messages based on confirmed information that would impact and be sent to students, faculty, and staff as well as the general public.

“We had every senior administrator on our campus functioning in their role,” he says. “That they see value in an exercise like this—that we had their participation—is huge.”

The exercise showed “improvements in our staff, including their reaction times,” Miller says. And while the exercise went well, the mistakes they discovered are ultimately why they did it. “We found a few communication errors and issues out on the field,” he said. “Some misunderstanding of [the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s] procedures with NIMS [National Incident Management System] and ICS [Incident Command System]. These are really significant issues that could give you a hard time during a real incident.”

Rollins will continue working with WPPD, WPFD, and OCEM to improve those areas. “It definitely went a lot smoother than it would have two, four, six, eight years ago,” Miller said. “Overall, campus safety is so different than it was 20 years ago. We’re not just responding to incidents. We are actively involved in planning for emergencies, drilling, training, and trying to make sure our campus is safe.”