SUNY New Paltz students tend to have a light class schedule on Wednesday mornings, as anyone who lives close enough to be awakened by the midweek migration to the bars Tuesday night likely knows. But last Wednesday, in the lobby of Wooster Hall, the sun streamed through floor-to-ceiling windows onto a scene that was eerily quiet. A siren-like sound, emanating from a nearby phone, preceded an unsettling announcement: there’s an armed intruder in the building, and visitors should either leave or take cover until they’re instructed that it’s now safe. The announcement was repeated periodically and was clearly on a loop.
Several loud reports were heard; the source was unclear, but it was jarring to hear and difficult not to jump. A figure appeared on one side of the lobby. He walked through calmly, pistol at his side, and headed down the hallway. As he went, he checked doors as he passed; discovering them locked, he moved on and out of sight. More gunshots rang out, and the shooter again made his way to the lobby. This time, however, he was quickly followed by a number of university police officers, clad in kevlar and taking a bead on the malefactor. After ordering him to put down his weapon and receiving no response, they fired several shots and incapacitated him. Officers quickly moved in and placed him in handcuffs.
“The drill is over, repeat, the drill is over.”
An event which took only 18 minutes to execute, the partial lockdown drill was a year in planning. Wooster Hall was selected in particular because it was designed and built just before many safety-focused improvements were made standard for campus buildings, such as speakers built into fire alarms that could be repurposed for such emergency announcements. The large amounts of glass used in its construction make it difficult to hide from an intruder, making it all the more important to follow guidance on how to secure doors and shelter safely in place. Wednesday was chosen for this first-of-its-kind drill because of the expected light traffic; an estimated 50-60 faculty and staff members, plus 10-15 students, were directly impacted, not including the observers and reporters on hand.
Planning also went into ensuring as much as possible that all members of the campus community knew about the drill beforehand and during its execution. Every text message, every loudspeaker announcement, every e-mail communication included that fact. One observer on hand was specifically invited to assist on the off chance that a veteran would happen upon the drill and attempt to intervene. Communication before and during the drill was clearly a priority.
During a debriefing session over lunch at the Terrace restaurant, Director of Emergency Management Scott Schulte explained that this drill wasn’t to test emergency responders, but the emergency response plan itself. Every table was scattered with clipboards to record observations, and people were invited to discuss what they noticed.
Schulte, along with Lieutenant Ryan Williams of the university police, co-chaired the committee that organized the drill. According to Chief David Dugatkin, however, “This is just the beginning.” The full campus lockdown drill is already being planned for 2018. Dugatkin said that they reached out to colleagues at other campuses to see if this has been done in the SUNY system before, and were told, “Please let us know how it goes.”
These drills are being prepared using a “whole community approach,” Schulte said, to ensure that all stakeholders get to participate. Much of the feedback seems to have been expected: it was difficult to hear announcements in many parts of Wooster, for one; the large windows made many staff members feel exposed, for another. Both of those are issues which are expected to be addressed for that particular building. Newer construction has none of the outsized windows, and it’s easier to hear announcements thanks to the newer fire alarms. Older buildings will be retrofitted with better technology as fast as the budget allows.
One quick fix is the addition of scrolling display signs, first in dorms, with dining areas coming next. They just carry a welcome most of the time, but can be used to broadcast messages both visually and audibly. Already there’s a system of loudspeakers which ensures all outside portions of the campus are reached in times of trouble.
For now, the most effective notification system is through text messages; students are opted in by default, while employees are strongly encouraged to sign up. Administrators try to exercise restraint on its use, out of concern that overuse would encourage people to opt out.
Officer Ryan Law remarked that the entire process was a standout example of cooperation, both among campus departments and between union members and management. “The best way to be prepared is with training,” he said; Dugatkin noted that additional officers were on duty to handle actual police business, allowing many officers and dispatchers to participate in the exercise.
Campus officials will now begin studying the feedback received from observers throughout the building and beyond, as well as look at the “exorbitant amount of footage” taken by security cameras and videographers who filmed the entire drill. That data will be used to better prepare for the full campus lockdown drill; there might also be a video released, once it’s all edited together.