Preparing For The Worst

Preparing For The Worst

High Point University participates in Protect-in-Place drill following incidents on campuses across the country

It happened at 11:46 a.m. on a Friday, just three weeks before the Parkland shooting. A southeastern university issued a campus-wide emergency notification advising a gunman was on or near campus, and that individuals should seek protective shelter immediately.

The incident was scary, but no gunman existed. This scenario was only an exercise where High Point University members, including students (for the first time), participated in the “Protect-in-Place” response strategy. (This campus chose not to use the “Lock-down” term as it is a misnomer for a Higher Ed campus.)

Evaluators moved quickly through academic buildings checking door handles and peering through door windows. Acting from the perspective of an armed assailant, these evaluators noted any opportunities that would have made them more capable of hurting their intended targets. At the end of the drill, an all-clear message was announced and activities resumed as normal.

During the exercise “hotwash” or debriefing, the drill’s evaluators assessed how well the university responded, what deficiencies were noted as well and what can be improved. Each shared their observations from their respective buildings, including who didn’t participate in the drill or if any environmental obstacles created challenges.

Following the hotwash, emergency management and security staff drafted an After Action Report (AAR) and Improvement Plan for senior administration, outlining the strengths and areas of weakness that the drill exposed. An AAR and improvement plan is created following any exercise or real-world emergency and the recommendations are prioritized and implemented, allowing for a process of continuous improvement.


The first step for conducting a successful exercise is to outline the scope of the exercise by identifying intended goals. Target a particular response procedure and/or systems. A common pitfall in exercise design is that either goals are not clearly established or the exercise has too many unfocused goals.

The school’s exercise goals were to test and evaluate the emergency notification system including all communication endpoints, including building speakers, campus sirens, and the campus’ personal contact information; assess the campus community’s ability to quickly receive the notification and to seek protective shelter; and evaluate academic buildings for any security vulnerabilities (e.g., doors without locks, etc.) from an environmental/design perspective.


Emergency placards were installed in each classroom. The colorful sign displayed information on common response considerations to medical, fire, severe weather, and active violence incidents as well as campus emergency contact information. While not everyone will read the information, their presence in prominent and visible locations in each classroom reinforces the importance of preparedness on campus. Additionally, a comprehensive all hazards emergency action plan was digitally disseminated to the entire campus community.


A comprehensive and detailed schedule of events, otherwise known as a Master Scenario Events List or MSEL, guided the flow and timing of the drill. The MSEL serves as the overall exercise playbook and guides the actions of the drill.

University security dispatch launched the mass notification alert advising the campus of the exercise start. Evaluators attempted to enter classrooms and noted any unsecured doors, lights left on, lack of drill participation and any design flaws in the physical room. Some rooms pose significant challenges—large glass windows, doors and walls necessitate a different strategy. Students and faculty need to recognize their space’s vulnerabilities quickly and determine if the area can be fortified or if evacuation is necessary.

The fire alarm was activated in three buildings as an additional exercise inject for confusion and and stress. Fire alarms have been used by some attackers to lure people into an open space, just like the Parkland shooter did on Feb. 14. Most classrooms continued to remain in place; however, some did evacuate.


Communication. Numerous and redundant paths of communication are essential for disseminating information to the campus. The drill reinforced that text, email, siren and phone calls may not be sufficient. Expanding campus notification through building speakers and additional outdoor siren/PA system, as well as ensuring that all classrooms are equipped with classroom intercom phones, is critical for ensuring emergency notifications are received.

Access Control. Though the university has modified classroom doors’ locks over a phased multi-year program, not every classroom can be locked from the inside without a key. This exercise helped to identify some areas of campus that did not have locks installed or presented structural challenges (e.g., windows, glass walls/doors).

Outreach. Since campuses generally gain and lose a quarter of the student body each year there is a continued need for increased student outreach and engagement. To this end emergency management staff are partnering with the Student Government Association to create a campus safety subcommittee comprised of student leaders to identify studentcentric solutions and means of improving the campus safety program. Repetition. One drill is not sufficient. Consistent training and exercises are required. The discussions and learnings prompted by this exercise illustrated the importance of an emergency management training and exercise program and helped achieve additional program support and buy-in from university leadership. The next campus-wide exercise has already been scheduled.


In order to successfully conduct a Protect-in-Place response drill, you will need to take into account these essential planning elements:

  • Set clear goals and objectives.
  • Communicate what you are doing any why with your campus community.
  • Train your campus on the response expected of them.
  • Conduct your exercise with ample evaluators.
  • Schedule the next exercise and repeat the process.

However, the greatest obstacle to conducting a successful exercise is overcoming the fear of performing poorly. “Failing” is perhaps the main reason for resistance when conducting drills and exercises. Paradoxically, an exercise that does not identify areas of weakness that can be improved upon is itself a failure. Institutions conduct exercises to identify points of weakness and failure so that these areas can be strengthened or corrected in a low-stress environment versus having to discover these weaknesses during a real-world emergency.

Conducting a campus-wide emergency drill requires significant internal and external partnerships and support, a defined goal and set of objectives, and a clear commitment from senior leadership/administration to support the campus emergency management program.

Emergencies occur with little or no advanced warning. Emergency management programs must recognize this reality in order to prepare the organization to respond adequately. While training police, fire, and EMS is critical for effective incident response, too often faculty, staff and students are excluded from hands-on training which leaves this vulnerable group ill-prepared to protect themselves in an actual emergency.

How does a university include the entire campus in drills without disrupting academia or instilling unnecessary fear amongst the campus community? It’s a delicate balance but it can be done.

This article originally appeared in the June 2018 issue of Campus Security & Life Safety.

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