Thursday, 1 July 2010

How would we cope?

How would we cope if a student took two handguns out of his bag, shot into a crowd of students waiting for an exam to start, and then shot himself? That was the scenario we were faced with yesterday in an incident simulation staged to test our Incident and Business Continuity planning. Scary stuff - very reminiscent of what happened at Virginia Tech, and made even more real by the recent incident in Cumbria.

We were set up in 4 teams with people from different areas, which during the morning were mixed up, had people taken out etc to represent what would happen in a real incident. Initially there would be lots of confusion, some people hearing gunshots, some seeing students running in panic, some hearing sirens, and some seeing stuff unfold as posts were quickly made to social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter. When asked what would be the initial reaction, and how they would find out what was going on, almost everyone there said they would ring our control centre or the head of security - putting undue pressure on them and their phones.

As the morning progressed, and the scenario became clearer and more information given to us we discussed how we would set up an Incident Management team and where, how would we handle the thousands of calls expected from worried parents, friends, press. How would we handle the press? Logistically in terms of their physical requirements - space, access to power and internet, parking for their satellite trucks, to who would speak to them, what we'd say, and what advice we'd give to students and staff if they were interviewed. What support could we provide to students and their families, and how would we handle the disruption to exams - especially for final year students.

Drawing on the experience of Virginia Tech and other high profile incidents we were able to see how the use of the iternet and in particular social media sites has changed the way the world now communicates. Information would be on Twitter and Facebook before anywhere else - including the names of those dead or injured. In the VT incident, the shootings were over by 0950 and the first activity recorded on Facebook was 1023, and the first wikipedia entry at 1115. By 1113 a Facebook group had been set up in tribute to those killed. Names of students killed were being identified and published way in advance of VT announcing them at 1915. One of the questions we were asked during the exercise was would we believe the postings on Twitter and Facebook, and I was stunned by the number of people in the room who said no!

A very well spent morning, and an incident I hope we never have to deal with, but lots of lessons to learn which can be applied to many, less tragic, incidents.

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