Message From the Gulf

The contamination disaster in the Gulf of Mexico demonstrates the need for organizations to place safety in proper perspective for their overall operations. The damage to the environment, the economy, one of the world’s largest corporations, millions of people, and untold numbers of other living creatures is difficult to accurately comprehend. This epic tragedy is yet another potent reminder that an organization which fails to place an appropriate emphasis on safety can cause massive suffering and lasting severe damage to itself, as well as many others outside of it.

There is no shortage of examples to further demonstrate the massive impact of such situations. Most readers can probably recall major safety failures from a few words or even a number — The Hindenburg, the Titanic, Pearl Harbor, Three Mile Island, Lockerbie, Chernobyl, Exxon Valdez, the Challenger, and of course, 9/11. The fact that people can instantly recognize these examples demonstrates just how damaging the effect of each incident was. With few exceptions, crisis situations at institutions of higher learning have not resulted in such wide public awareness that a single word or phrase has become recognizable. As with the other incidents mentioned, these tragedies have fortunately resulted in significant positive change in how colleges and universities handle safety, security, and emergency preparedness.

Changes Are Not Always Adequate

As with the various examples mentioned, however, the changes in campus safety have also not always been adequate. The bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, did not cause enough action to prevent the September 11, 2001 attacks. Though most institutions of higher learning have significantly improved safety security and emergency preparedness measures in recent years, some still have glaring safety gaps that will someday result in the deaths of students and staff.

The 95 deaths in a fire at Our Lady of Angels Sacred Hearts School in Chicago in 1958 resulted at least in part due to poor safety procedures, emergency plans, and drill practices that still exist in many colleges and universities today. For example, the school conducted fire drills in almost exactly the same manner as most K–12 schools and institutions of higher learning do today, and staff were accidently conditioned to wait until someone else pulled the fire alarm to evacuate. The same problems with improperly prepared school staff that led to the deaths of 95 victims were observed in external evaluations utilizing simulations of K–12 school crisis events this year. With participation from more than 100 school employees in more than 50 schools from several states, a good snapshot of common gaps was obtained. While these simulations where conducted with K–12 school employees, we have seen similar results on college and university campuses with a smaller but adequate sample group.

The Best-Laid Plans May Not Be Enough
As mentioned earlier, significant reactions to major tragedies do not always result in effective improvement. Most of the simulations mentioned were conducted as part of external audits in districts that have spent significant amounts of money and time to develop new crisis plans. In most instances, school staff — ranging from building administrators and teachers to custodians and front office staff — were unable to name all life-or-death key action steps when confronted with a realistic simulation of a crisis event. One of the districts has experienced multiple fatal crisis situations, including a number of shootings, and has purchased an elaborate emergency software management system. The level of preparedness looked impressive until these types of tests revealed that a number of deaths could occur in the short time period before the computers running the emergency systems could be booted up.

While the effort, time, and money have been expended, the participating school employees who will need to act to avert death are not dramatically more prepared than the school employees who locked up under the stress of a real crisis in 1958. In that instance, the decisions that were not made by unprepared line staff in the first few minutes led to the deaths. Fortunately, the school organizations where these assessments were conducted are all actively seeking to test their safety, security, and emergency preparedness measures so gaps can be found and corrected.

Learn From the Failures of Others
Campus leaders can learn many lessons from major safety failures. Many years ago, the leadership of the world’s largest airline failed to place a proper emphasis on safety, resulting in the organization suffering catastrophic damage. The pain and suffering they failed to prevent is still with the families of those who died that day in Scotland. More recently, the same can be said for the Gulf oil spill, the repercussions of which will be suffered by Gulf Coast residents and many others for years to come. No campus leader desires to bear responsibility for a tragedy. Placing the proper importance on campus safety now can avert such a burden later.