While many students were away from campus on Spring Break, WCU and local emergency services participated in an emergency preparedness drill on Tuesday, Mar. 3 when a simulated “active shooter” incident was held in The Village.
The drill was run by EnviroSafe, an emergency consulting agency, and funded by a $40,000 federal homeland security grant awarded to the Jackson County Emergency Management Office. The shooter incident was a condensed-time simulation, spanning approximately four and a half hours, though EnviroSafe estimates that the simulated events would take up to eight hours in actuality and up to two days to fully investigate.
Preparations began at 8am when officials from University Police, the Jackson County Sherriff’s office, the Sylva Police, the Cullowhee Fire Department, and West Care medical service teams from Jackson, Swain and Haywood counties began arriving to set up staging areas at several locations, including the baseball stadium parking lot and the new parking lot beside Reid Gym. Barricades were also set up around The Village. Approximately 15 student volunteers from both WCU and Smoky Mountain High School participated in the drill as “victims” and spent the morning having make-up “injuries” applied in order to make the drill more realistic.
The incident itself began at approximately 12:30pm when University Police responded to a call saying that a gunman had opened fire in The Village. The university’s command staff, including Chancellor Bardo, were notified and an operation center was set up in the Robinson Administration Building. Local emergency response teams were also notified at this time, though do to the condensed-time nature of the drill these teams were already on campus. The campus-wide emergency alarm was sounded at 12:47pm.
The drill was also a test for WCU’s Office of News Services, headed by Bill Studenc, who in a real emergency would be charged with keeping students and faculty on campus informed with the latest developments and safety precautions. Teresa Killian, writer and editor for News Services, sent out multiple e-mails through Catamount Mail throughout the day as part of the drill. These messages included instructions to “shelter-in-place,” and information on how to select the safest possible locations for sheltering.
A command center for News Services was set up in Belk building with Killian and Jill Ingram, public relations writer for News Services, where members of the press were invited to attend press conferences throughout the day. The press members themselves participated in the drill by asking Killian questions that would be asked in a real emergency. This was designed to help News Services improve their emergency response, though had this been a real incident no press would be present, as campus would be barricaded off until the crisis was over.
Killian was also tasked with updating information on WCU’s website, where the community could be informed of the latest developments, though Killian stated that in a real incident an emergency website would be created to handle increased web traffic. This procedure was added in wake of the incident at Virginia Tech, where the website was overloaded with requests, leaving the community unable to access updated information.
At 3:49pm the campus alarm announced “All clear. Emergency drill is over.” Following the conclusion of the drill, command center staff and commanding officers of law enforcement teams attended a meeting in which the events of the drill were discussed with EnviroSafe consultants, though a full evaluation will not be completed until later.
A final press conference was held at 4:23pm with Studenc, Bardo, Chief of Police Tom Johnson, and EnviroSafe consultant Kevin Dulls, a 1984 alumnus of WCU. The conference served as the final stage of the drill, with Johnson and Bardo issuing statements as they would in a real emergency. Johnson informed the press that the shooter had been contained to a building where he held eight hostages, some of which were eventually released through negotiation. According to Johnson, one person was killed in the incident and two more were severely injured, including a police officer, before police stormed the building and neutralized the shooter. Bardo issued a statement of condolences to victims of the family.
“Our thoughts and hearts go out to every individual and their families who were involved,” Bardo said. He added, “Our primary concern is to make sure this situation never happens again.”
After completing this final part of the drill, Bardo, Dulls, and Johnson provided logistical information about the drill. Dulls praised WCU’s relationship with community law enforcement and medical services, as well as the News Service team.
“Everyone worked well together. All in all I think you had a great exercise,” Dulls said.
Johnson commented that the WCU Police had learned a lot from the drill, though he added, “You never get to the point where you’re totally ready. You have to prepare for all eventualities and scenarios.”
Bardo concluded by expressing his thanks to EnviroSafe, campus and local officials, and student volunteers, who he commended for participating in a highly-charged incident.
“It felt very real,” Bardo said. “A lot of what you’re feeling is real emotion because it feels real…It became a real incident for the people who were in it.”
EnviroSafe has plans to conduct similar emergency drills with other North Carolina universities. A full report of the incident will be given to WCU officials with EnviroSafe’s recommendations for improvement, though it is unknown at this time how much of this report will be released to the public.