A jury in Christiansburg, VA last week found university officials guilty of negligence in the 2007 Virginia Tech shootings. How were they negligent? They waited too long to notify students after the first two fatalities. Jurors decided on an award of $4 million in this wrongful death suit, which will likely be decreased in coming weeks. So, where did the university officials go wrong?
First, here is a timeline of events and the officials’ reactions to the events:
7:15 First shooting in on-campus dormitory
8:00 Classes begin
8:25 Administration meets to debrief on events
8:52 University President Charles Steger’s office is locked down
9:26 Emails sent to 37,000 informing them of the first shooting incident
9:42 9-1-1 call made by students experiencing second shooting
9:50 After police arrive, it takes them five minutes to assemble a team to break into the building (the gunman had chained the doors)
9:50 Second email sent: “A gunman is loose on campus. Stay in buildings until further notice. Stay away from all windows”
Where did they go wrong? Here are the two biggest issues:
- They assumed the first incident was isolated. Rather than assume the worst, officials let uninformed students walk to class with no knowledge of the whereabouts of the shooter.
- It took more than two hours for the University to notify students of the first incident.
In the aftermath of VA Tech, dozens of notification providers popped up, offering best-in-class communications systems (with text, email, and voice capabilities) to reach thousands of recipients quickly. But that doesn’t solve the problem. The decisions that were made on Monday, April 16, 2007 were a result of untrained officials, who made incorrect assumptions, and acted too slowly. They had the technical infrastructure; they didn’t have the people structure in place. Communication is the last piece of preparing for unpredictable events. You must be able to READ a situation within seconds, RESPOND within minutes, and RECOVER for as long as it takes. Proper crisis training and a chain of command is crucial to ensure your organization can respond to a threat quickly when it happens. On its own, emergency notification is not enough, as this tragedy proved. Thirty lives might have been saved that day if a crisis structure had been in place.