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Seminar Focuses on Navigating Difficult Aspects of Dealing with Campus Emergencies

April 24, 2014

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To survive an emergency situation, the whole is incumbent upon the sum of its parts. 


St. Louis Community College recently hosted a seminar focusing on campus emergencies prevention, response and recovery, at which participants gained a better understanding and keys to navigate successfully through man-made or natural events that may include acts of violence.


The seminar, designed by Louisiana State University’s National Center for Biomedical Research and Training, featured classroom discussion, facilitated discussions, and problem-based group activities that required a coordinated, integrated approach to solve. STLCC participants were joined by peers from Saint Louis and Washington universities, the St. Louis College of Pharmacy, St. Louis Public Schools and the Saint Louis Police Department.


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“One of the key messages I took from this seminar to ‘stay in your lane,’” said Richard Banahan, chief of the campus police at STLCC-Forest Park. “That’s why you have people with specific roles, and decisions are made based on what you know and what information is available at the ground level. It’s all about following and executing your plan, and changing it if needed to, as well as making good decisions.”


STLCC’s Leadership Team also received a special two-hour overview focusing on the roles administrators must play in the event of an emergency. J. Lawrence Cunningham, head of Essential Security Strategies LLC who was a seminar presenter, said that this marked the first time he had given an executive brief to a large institutional leadership group. He also noted that STLCC leadership was fully engaged and offered thoughtful questions throughout the briefing.


“It is more than apparent that our administration is dedicated to the safety of all who are on an STLCC campus or property,” said Anthony Russo, campus police chief at Meramec.


“It is very important that our district leadership heard the same thing – that they do not need to be in the operations, or ‘in the weeds,’” Banahan said. “Those of us on the ground look for them to lead, to authorize, approve – to make decisions that we don’t have the authority to make, such as canceling classes. That is the administrative ‘lane.’”


Sandra Turner, chief of the campus police at Florissant Valley, said she learned the value of implementing a Joint Information Center, which serves as a physical location where all incident-related public information activities are conducted. Because a situation on campus may pose a threat to the surrounding community, information sharing with local law enforcement and public safety agencies is critical.


“I was not sure how it would work with so many different people with different personalities in one room,” Turner said. “However, as a result of the training, I learned that how well a community responds to a disaster or emergency depends on how connected the community is. More often than not, different people with different personalities can come together and work collaboratively for the best of purposes.” 


Banahan added: “The worst thing that can happen in an emergency situation is someone saying that ‘no one told me.’ You can never have enough communication.”


Emergency plans are not static documents. Kurt Wagner, patrolman at Forest Park who is a 30-year veteran of the St. Louis Police Department, said he learned where some of the weaknesses in the current college plans lay, and what steps are needed to strengthen them.


Since the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in December 2012, there have been more than 30 instances of violence on some type of school property. And as Banahan noted, training is most critical to how quickly and successfully an institution can recover from an emergency.


“STLCC is much farther ahead of like institutions because we have been given the go-ahead from college leadership to be ahead,” he said. “The campuses are self-interested. We have to prepare ourselves every day for the possibility that we may have to deal with incidents like that. How we respond will determine how we can overcome the emergency and get us back into working condition as soon as humanly possible."