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Planning for Disaster: Georgetown’s Emergency Preparedness

April 29, 2010


On May 8, 2007, Department of Public Safety officers were faced with a terrifying prospect:  an anonymous caller to the Metropolitan Police Department had threatened to commit “mass murder” inside the Bunn Intercultural Center. Just weeks after the Virginia Tech massacre, Georgetown was facing the possibility of a similar tragedy during finals week.

DPS responded to the ICC threat while MPD officers searched the building. According to Vice President for University Safety Rocco DelMonaco, police officers found no threats in the ICC, and though they were able to trace the call to an off-campus pay phone, the perpetrator was never found.

The system worked as it had been designed to, except for one thing: the University’s executive leadership was in Rome, Italy, at a Board of Directors meeting, and no one could reach them for the duration of the situation. While DelMonaco wrote in an e-mail that this did not affect the response to the threat, an application for a Department of Education grant to improve school safety obtained by the Voice describe “a struggle with procedures regarding hierarchy, notification, and decision-making.” Eventually, the decision to post extra DPS officers around the ICC, which should have been made by Provost James O’Donnell, was made by University Registrar John Q. Pierce.

Although MPD eventually decided the threat wasn’t credible, the anonymous phone call exposed flaws in Georgetown’s emergency management system. If Georgetown’s top leadership couldn’t be kept apprised of the threat, how would the University manage a threat that turned out to be real?

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Georgetown can be many things: a home, a school, an open-air bar, and a vomitorium. But according to a grant application that Georgetown prepared in 2007, it could also be a tempting target for a terrorist.

As the University is home to the intelligence archives of former Secretary of State Madeline Albright, the largest collection of intelligence documents outside of the federal government, and at the time of the threat, host to former Central Intelligence Agency Director George Tenet, the application argued, Georgetown could be targeted in an attack and needed funds to remake its emergency response system. Ultimately, the D.C. Department of Education’s Office of Safe and Drug Free Schools awarded Georgetown $549,302 for a security overhaul.

Through a federal Freedom of Information Act request, the Voice obtained 118 pages about the grant, including the application and related e-mails. The documents illustrate what kinds of threats Georgetown feels it faces, from disease outbreaks to tornados.

Even before the 2007 scare, Georgetown higher-ups were aware of the school’s vulnerabilities to disasters and malicious attacks. A report produced in 2005 by a consultant for the University listed 150 different threats against the school and ranked them by severity and the probability that they would occur.

DelMonaco declined to name any specific threats, citing security concerns. But according to the grant application, Georgetown’s status as a research university in Washington makes it a special target for “terrorism, political protests, and civil disturbances.” And a document from December 2007 describing Georgetown’s emergency management plan ranks a range of threats, from an isolated incident like a suicide or student misconduct, to regional or national emergencies, like a nuclear attack. In between these two extremes are “developing incidents,” “immediate incidents,” and “campus emergencies,” ranging from sniper attacks in the Washington area to hostage-taking scenarios.

In response to potential threats, documents about the grant reveal, Georgetown has considered any number of things—from a situation room right down to how the placement of trees could help muggers attack students.

One of the more intriguing proposals involves the School of Nursing and Health Studies. According to the application, the NHS intended to build a “situation room” for disaster response. Modeled after situation rooms in the White House and the Center for Disease Control, it would have been the first situation room in higher education. Although the details of what would be in the room are unclear, if the room is based on federal situation rooms, it would probably contain communication links with other parts of Georgetown’s infrastructure. Administrators expected that the room could be used for NHS classes about infectious diseases during the school year, and double as a real situation room if a catastrophe occurred.

“That sort of room lends itself as an internal resource,”  Director of Emergency Management Whit Chaiyabhat said.

The FOIA documents claim the proposed chamber wasn’t built by the September 2009 construction deadline predicated by the application, and the District’s Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs records show no construction permits in 2008 or 2009 for the construction of a room at Georgetown like the one described in the grant application. The NHS claims it is still interested in building an emergency response room, but it is unclear whether the idea will ever come to fruition.

That doesn’t mean the Emergency Response Team will be homeless during a disaster, though. Chaiyabhat wrote in an e-mail that members of Georgetown’s Emergency Response Team have pre-determined locations to meet in case of a disaster. As long as a disaster doesn’t take down electronics, the University could also use a virtual situation room, according to Chaiyabhat. The team is made up of different parts of Georgetown’s administrative infrastructure, from public relations to University Information Services.

The school has also been conducting an internal assessment of how landscape can promote or deter crime or more serious attacks on campus. Using a technique called Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design, Georgetown’s administration and a consultant could alter the face of campus.

“We have done some basic CPTED-related changes, including changes to landscaping and improved lighting, but we wish to take a more comprehensive approach,” the grant application says.

Part of the grant money went towards more consultant work on environmental analysis. In an e-mail, DelMonaco said the current process with a consultant is ongoing.

While Georgetown used CPTED environmental analysis before and after the grant, the University’s efforts to prepare for a major disaster are lined with other ideas that never materialized.

Recently, the University has practiced responding to more mundane threats. Instead of an attack on a high-profile faculty member or the University’s massive intelligence archives, these tabletop exercises, with names like “Hoya Shield” and “Fire in the Evening” simulated other dangers—a lab explosion, a fire in White-Gravenor Hall, and even an outbreak of norovirus at the School of Foreign Service’s Qatar campus with the prospect of the disease spreading back to D.C. “New Student Tornado” simulated the touchdown of a tornado on campus during New Student Orientation, a collision of events seemingly designed to drive long-time bureaucrats crazy. Pictures from the exercises show administrators gathered around rectangular tables in Riggs Library, responding to slideshows with, in one case, a graphic of fire billowing out of a building at SFS-Q.

One of the exercises funded by the grant took on a grimmer topic: a missing student. During the exercise, the student’s body is discovered a week before Commencement, forcing Georgetown’s media relations staff to figure out how to handle the death during the run-up to graduation.

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The application’s scope isn’t limited to secret rooms and landscape modification. The documents reveal that for particularly dire emergency scenarios, 90 resident assistants and members of the Reserve Officer Training Corps have been designated as marshals in the University’s Building and Floor Marshal Program. These student marshals, equipped with two-way radios and trained in evacuation and taking shelter, could handle supplies distribution or crowd control during a catastrophe.

The mock disasters presented to administrators were less outlandish than that, mostly consisting of hands-off abstractions which allowed officials to go over emergency plans but never forcing them to make tough decisions. The grant application makes clear, however, that an actual catastrophe on campus would be much darker, with University administrators forced to ration scarce, potentially lifesaving resources.

The difficulty of allocating resources at Georgetown after a disaster is clearest in the University’s plans to respond to a disease outbreak. According to the application, the infectious disease response would have to cover everything from maintaining massive supplies of hand soap to providing basic services to students if the University had to shut down campus entrances.

Using money from the Department of Education grant, the University has purchased 500 N-95 masks, which look similar to the ones construction workers wear to cover their noses and mouths. In the application, Phil Hagan, Georgetown’s Director of Safety and Environmental Management, identifies the 500 people who would receive the masks in the event of a disaster, “first responders and other critical personnel.” In case of emergency, it seems most of Georgetown’s student population would be left maskless.

“It depends on the situation,” Hagan said on the phone, when asked how he decides who would receive a mask.

According to DelMonaco, the distribution criteria vary based on the emergency. For the swine flu, the Centers for Disease Control specifically advised that first responders receive masks, so at Georgetown masks were given to GERMS.

“In another situation, CDC guidelines might include others, such as DPS or someone providing food service to a sick individual,” DelMonaco wrote in an e-mail.

Of course, emergencies aren’t just hypothetical scenarios to be rehearsed or planned for. This year has seen quite a few minor ones, especially fires. After a blaze on the third floor of New South last semester and fires in New North and Harbin this semester, Chaiyabhat is happy with how Georgetown’s emergency teams responded.

“We were very pleased with the responses and decisions made by members of the Department of Public Safety, Safety & Environmental Management, Facilities Management, GERMS, and DC EMS,” Chaiyabhat wrote in an e-mail.

Georgetown is still working on improving its responses, though. After the New South Fire, displaced residents were polled to find out how to improve University services provided after an emergency.

The money from the grant is allocated through 2011, and Georgetown isn’t currently pursuing for more emergency management grants from the government.

“The primary responsibility of any response is, first and foremost, life safety,” Chaiyabhat wrote.



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Comments 3

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    I am disgusted. This is so filthy.

  • Avatar

    A University usually has a great population, with people from various walks of life. Safety and Security should be a top priority. Moreover, there should be more than just one person in charge of it, a system should be design in a way that a clear chain of command and a clear succession of position is instated. tragedy happens when not expected.


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