WCU to Host Gunman Emergency Drill on March 3

Western Carolina University and several regional emergency response agencies will conduct a disaster preparedness drill on the Cullowhee campus Tuesday, March 3.

The drill, which will involve a simulated “active shooter” incident in a campus residence hall, is the result of a $40,000 federal homeland security grant to the Jackson County Emergency Management Office to help law enforcement agencies, emergency responders and university officials evaluate existing crisis response plans, policies and procedures. The full-scale drill follows a tabletop exercise held in January.

“The purpose of the drill is to test our response to a mass casualty incident,” said Lt. Kent Davis of the University Police Department. “The drill is designed to be educational and provide opportunities to improve our responses and develop policies for various emergencies.”

The March 3 scenario will be the first full-scale exercise the university has conducted since May 2004, when a campuswide emergency drill involved a mock explosion in a chemistry lab.

Live exercises use role-players involved in simulated incidents that occur in real time and require an actual reaction from emergency responders and university officials. Equipment and human resources are activated and deployed as if the emergency really is happening.

The tabletop exercise and upcoming drill are part of Western Carolina’s commitment to ensure the safety of students, faculty and staff, said Tom Johnson, WCU chief of police. In the aftermath of the Virginia Tech shootings of 2007, when a gunman killed 32 people, colleges and universities across the nation are taking a serious look at emergency preparedness. The University of North Carolina system has created a campus safety task force and is requiring UNC campuses to conduct regular assessments of their policies and procedures.

“This drill will serve as a valuable learning experience for all of us,” Johnson said. “It is important that we understand how ready we are to respond to a life-threatening situation. We know that we won’t get everything right during the drill, but the point is to learn from any mistakes and correct them so that if we do face a real emergency, we are better prepared to deal with it.”

In addition to WCU, the March 3 exercise will involve the Jackson County Sheriff’s Office, Sylva Police Department, Cullowhee Fire Department, WestCare Emergency Medical Service, and Asheville Fire and Rescue. The exercise will be facilitated by EnviroSafe Consulting, a Graham-based company specializing in helping organizations in their preparedness, emergency response and regulatory compliance programs.

A large portion of campus will be closed during the day of the exercise, which is being held during WCU’s spring break week.