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Univ. of Texas Austin Passes Active Shooter Test

An active shooter incident tested the effectiveness of the drills, tabletop exercises, partnerships, student and staff emergency training, and technology upgrades implemented by this large Texas university.

December 10, 2010  |  by Robin Hattersley Gray

Because internal and external public safety personnel knew each other on a first-name basis, during the Sept. 28 event, the incident command post ran smoothly. According to Dahlstrom, it also helped that egos didn't get in the way.

"I think the biggest key was everyone left their rank at the door," he says. "There were lieutenants telling assistant chiefs 'This is what we need to do,' and they got it done. It wasn't, 'You can't tell me that because you're just a lieutenant or a commander.'"

UTPD's training, as well as its relationships with other law enforcement agencies also paid dividends during the officers' initial pursuit of the gunman.

"On a good day, I have six police officers on campus, and I need more officers than that, so we have to be able to work with these other teams," says Dahlstrom. "The key to that is uniformity and training. That way, you can mix teams and go through a building and everyone knows what you are doing."

Having interoperable radios also helps, according to Harkins.

"We've integrated our radio system with the regional radio system so we can carry the same radios that APD, Travis County Sheriff, the fire department and EMS carry," he says. "We can move to an interoperable frequency."

Provide the Press With the Information They Need

Several best practices were implemented so the school could effectively work with journalists and control rumors, which can cause confusion and sometimes even endanger the public. A joint information center with electrical power, parking and support for TV trucks was set up so university and law enforcement officials could hold press conferences. Harkins notes that the location and handling of the press conferences were also part of the August tabletop exercise.

"During the excitement of the event, you don't have time to say, 'Where can we have a press conference?'" he claims. "We already drilled that and were comfortable with that.

"The hardest thing is the flow of information. I was in Vietnam, and when you are being shot at, the last thing you want to do is radio your boss and tell him or her what's going on. But your boss needs to know, and the public affairs machine needs to get fed. Make sure you get them as much information as possible."

Cronk adds that the media must be told where they should go to get information. "At UT, we have three different corners of the campus where we have joint information centers," he says. "When a press conference is going to be held, a notice goes to the media to go to a specific location."

Lessons Learned: Define Terms, Roles of Non-Security Staff

Although UT Austin's response to the Sept. 28 incident was clearly a success, Harkins notes that there were some lessons he and his fellow administrators learned. Most of the areas of improvement involved definitions of terms and keeping things simple. For example, one confusing term is "shelter in place." Many students and the general public, for that matter, might not know what it means.

"Each year, at least 25 percent of the population is new again," says Harkins. "You've got to go back and make sure everyone understands your words."

Clarity is also important when defining the roles non-public safety personnel must play when an incident occurs.

"I need to know the five things you did in your office when you found out about this event," Harkins asked participants in his August tabletop exercise. "What is facilities going to do? What is parking and traffic going to do?"

Harkins claims the sharing of this information among the participants contributed to the effective campus response.

Dahlstrom agrees saying, "People were doing the right things at the right time and were a big help. We had a parking transportation kiosk guard who saw the gunman go by, and the guard started grabbing students and putting them in the building. I couldn't have asked him to do anything different. There were responses like that all around."

Dalhstrom is quick to point out, however, that the university was lucky that the gunman was not homicidal.

"We were very fortunate," he says. "Still, it was a tragedy. We lost a student, and parents lost a son. But it was a campus-wide success. It could have been a lot worse."

Editor's note: This article appeared in the November/December 2010 issue of Campus Safety, a sister publication of Police Magazine.

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