Emergency snafu exposes lack of preparedness
Last Wednesday, at 10:28 a.m., an emergency alarm blared throughout Wash. U.’s Danforth campus, warning everyone within earshot that an unspecified emergency was taking place. And for three minutes, during which time an alarm was sounding, an alarm that was clearly not a fire alarm, a tornado siren or a regularly scheduled drill, the collective response of almost everyone on campus was a shrug of the shoulders. Professors continued teaching, technicians continued tooling away and students caught outside, after an initial moment of confusion, went about their business. The incident—which turned out to be a mistake on the part some school employee taking part in a University-mandated test—speaks volumes about the Wash. U. community’s ability to cope with emergency situations, and it is clear that changes need to be made by the administration and the students, faculty and other employees who populate Wash. U.’s campus.
The University bears much of the blame. Every Wash. U. student past his first semester is all too familiar with tornado sirens and regular fire drills, but most of us are unfamiliar with how to respond to emergency warning sirens that sound for other reasons. Wash. U. does give some instruction to freshmen about potential emergency situations in floor meetings and through the “Choices” program, but for many students, standard shooter protocol is a mystery.
The University must take a more active role in training those associated with it on what to do in case of an unidentified emergency. Students and staff should be familiarized with emergency sirens and be taught how to act accordingly. Professors, too, need to be trained in what to do with their classes in case of emergency. There are far too many stories of obviously intelligent men and women continuing class last Wednesday as if there were no problem, when they should have been locking doors, covering windows and trying to communicate with the University to ascertain what the situation was. Text messages and emails are helpful, but without a clear (and publicized) procedure to go along with the alerts, the system is incomplete.
Of course, responsibility does not fall solely on the administration to train its community. In light of countless school shootings—there have been more than 60 grade school and college shootings since the Columbine massacre of 1999—the fact that so many at Wash. U. were unconcerned and failed to act in a potentially life-threatening situation is rightfully concerning. As a university—and as people concerned with protecting our own lives—it is essential for all of us to take seriously any emergency warnings, especially those which fail to specify the nature of the emergency. If a professor chose to brush off a screaming alarm, a student should have seized the initiative and taken steps to protect the classroom.
No amount of rules or regulations will be able to protect us if we are not first willing to follow basic steps if emergency situations arise. Despite whatever annoyance it may have caused, the accidental triggering of Wash. U.’s emergency alarm is a sobering reminder that the University is unprepared for a crisis situation not related to the weather.