This Is Only a Test: Lessons Learned from a Live Action Emergency Drill

The public safety officers of the University of Rochester conducted a live-action emergency drill this month that provided an opportunity for our officers to coordinate with local law enforcement agencies and other first responders in the event of an “active violence scenario.” For “active violence scenario,” read “gunman on campus; shooting at, injuring, and killing our students, faculty, staff.” If you are near a wood surface of any kind, this may be a good time to give it a few good raps with the knuckles.

While the drill was scripted and designed for the public safety officers, the staff in the University Communications office decided to observe and participate in a parallel exercise of our own to put ourselves through our paces. How would we respond on a day when the worst thing that can happen, happens?

Even though I knew what was coming and when it was coming, I confess I was filled with an adrenaline rush as the minutes to the start of the drill ticked down. What follows is a listing of my main takeaways from the experience: some obvious, some obvious only in hindsight, and some more questions than answers.

1. Haven’t done one of these? DO ONE. 
If your job involves publishing university news to institutional websites, supporting and maintaining your school’s web infrastructure, posting and monitoring social media, or working with media outlets or internal communications vehicles and you have never participated in a live action exercise like this one, talk to your boss and your public safety coordinator about joining in with the next one. I had participated in “table top” exercises in the past, where scenarios are conducted in a kind of play-acting way that, while still revealing and helpful, does not match the intensity of having actors portray gunshot victims, gunmen, news media, etc.

2. Have a mobile-friendly homepage ready to go. Now. Before an emergency.
I am sure your current homepage is beautiful. Hero images and carousels and event calendars and calls to action and core messaging and aids to navigation and all the rest. What should your homepage say when people are being shot on your campus? I hate being so blunt and scary, but there it is. You should have a stripped down, lightweight, image-free, script-free, font-free MOBILE-FRIENDLY version of your homepage ready to go and in the wings somewhere. Multiple people in your communications and IT offices should know where it is and how to publish and update it and have whatever server or account permissions are needed already in place to do so.

screenshot of an emergency homepage, with list up updates and a red header graphicscreenshot of our “pre-baked” emergency homepage


3. Prioritize and delegate. 
Within the first 12 minutes or so of the exercise I had my first “well, d’uh” moment when I realized that I was somehow expected to update the university homepage, the emergency information website, the newsroom, and Twitter, all at the same time. Not gonna happen. At a certain point, the laws of time and space intervene.

I quickly decided that, having gone to the Defcon 1 version of the homepage, the homepage was now the most important place to post the most up-to-date information. From all other outlets — social media, e-newsletters, other websites — we should be directing people to the homepage as the source for the latest information. I decided to take responsibility for the homepage and Twitter, and asked my assistant web editor to take over the emergency website, and our web writer to take responsibility for posting and monitoring Facebook. In order of priority for what to post to when, I quickly fell into a pattern: homepage, Twitter, emergency page, Facebook. I quite honestly forgot all about our newsroom.

Logistical note: for posts to our homepage and emergency information page, we actually did do real posts to our development environment as part of this exercise. To mimic posts to Facebook and Twitter, we kept a running Word document of what we would have posted when.


LEARN MORE: Kerri Hicks and Cindy Sabato (University of Rhode Island) “Red Stapler” winning presentation from HighEdWeb 2013 — Lessons Learned from a Lockdown: Using the Web and Social Media During a Crisis


4. Where are the words coming from?
If you are an IT or web communications professional, are *you* the one providing the actual words and sentences that are being posted to your website or social media outlets? You may very well be. There is also a chance you might not be, and instead you are waiting to hear from … someone else. Or maybe it’s a little of both. You can’t be waiting around for someone to draft then review then approve every sentence. In our case, our public information officer was on the scene with the public safety officers, communicating back to us. It was hugely helpful to know who the trusted sources for internal communication were. However, I also made on-the-fly editorial changes to some of the messaging, for Twitter especially. And editing down messages to 140 characters took a not insignificant chunk of time. Also, during our exercise, we did not even include the whole second-half of the equation for both social media and traditional media: responding to questions. Who does that? Who can speak to what?

5. Who is the audience for this NOW and what do they need NOW?
Like many universities, we have an email emergency alert service that all students, faculty, and staff are automatically signed up for. They are then encouraged to provide additional contact information for voice, text, or non-university email addresses. I didn’t realize until after this exercise that a large portion of our students include their parents as additional points of contact in this system. So as it turns out, many parents will be seeing the very first emergency alerts we send out on campus, at the same time their kids are seeing them. Imagine for a moment what that must be like.

As a crisis and tragedy like the one this exercise explored plays out, at each moment and in each message and communications vehicle, I think there needs to be a decision made about who the most important audience is and what that audience needs to know now. This exercise only encompassed the “live action” portion of this scenario. Once the gunman was apprehended, the exercise was over. The most important audience during this stage of the scenario, I think, has to be current students and their parents. Sure, there are other audiences to serve and other audiences that will see our messages: local and national news media, trustees, alumni. But if you are sitting in your dorm room or class room, or you are sitting in your living room 2,000 miles away in Arizona watching this unfold on CNN, what do you need right now?


One comment

  1. Well written Lori. I’ve been through a couple of these. For me the big “aha” moment seemed to be that public safety and senior administration seemed to think that my office would just “know” what was going on and what to post. Since then we’ve had a couple of incidents (turning out to be not-real-emergencies) that have helped us refine that process and get the communication flowing.

    Your triage of which sites to update pretty much matches ours here exactly.

    As to the lite version of a homepage, we’re planning on testing just how much actual traffic our servers and network can handle this spring. I’m tired of not really knowing just how they will hold up under a huge traffic spike.

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