I had three guns pointed at my head yesterday. Luckily, it was just part of a drill held on campus with the help of hundreds of volunteers to test the way the university, law enforcement agencies and other emergency responders fare in the face of a catastrophic emergency.
(Photo above: Incident volunteers run from a classroom as police clear Oldfather Hall during the TERREX11 simulation at UNL. Greg Nathan/University Communications.)
In our exercise, which was organized by the Nebraska Emergency Management Agency, two mock gunmen opened fire in Oldfather Hall. For those unfamiliar with campus, Oldfather is the university’s tallest academic building (12 stories) and the home base for the College of Arts and Sciences. For the exercise, the 12th floor Dean’s Office was staged on the seventh floor because the drill only involved floors one through seven.
I knew the drill was under way when I heard very realistic “gunshots”. Alecia Kimbrough, assistant dean for business and finance, was working in the faux office with me and we put our past training to use by closing and locking the door, turning off the lights and moving to a corner of the room that couldn’t be seen from the door. There wasn’t anywhere to hide, so we remained as quiet as possible. A few minutes later we heard "gunshots" outside the office and shell casings hitting the floor. The "gunman" jiggled the door handle. He moved on when he found the door was locked and there were no signs of occupants.
We waited for nearly an hour before law enforcement officers reached us. Because they started clearing the building from the seventh floor, we were among the first of those that sheltered in place to get out of the building. It was eerie because when they showed up, they had to assume that I was a shooter. They couldn’t rule out anyone. That meant they had three guns pointed at me and even though I knew it was fake, it got my blood moving. We were escorted running out of the building with our hands over our heads and we got frisked multiple times. We saw the "casualties" in the stairwell and in the classrooms on the second and third floor. Investigators also asked us questions I never would have thought of – how many shots did we hear and how quickly were they fired, for example, as they attempted to determine how many shooters were in the building.
As part of the exercise, 30 people "died" and more than three dozen others were "injured". The volunteers were made up with fake wounds that looked very lifelike and made the scenario even more intense.
What I learned was that such experiences are extremely chaotic. You have to make split-second decisions based on the information you have, hope they’re the best, and continually re-evaluate. In our case, our situational awareness training was extremely valuable, "lifesaving", in fact.
School shootings, thankfully, are extremely unusual. Here at UNL, we have a great police department and numerous measures in place to keep our students, faculty and staff safe. Our best defense is to be proactive and I believe the recent exercise will only advance those ongoing efforts.
I’d like to thank all of the students, faculty and staff who volunteered their time, especially those who assisted in organizing the exercise. I believe everyone came away from it with new ideas about how to respond more quickly and make better decisions if, heaven forbid, such a crisis were to actually occur.
I’ll be discussing the scenario in greater detail with the college’s assistant and associate deans. I’ll also be sharing my experience with deans from across the university as we continue to reinforce our safety plans.