USD ‘prepared the best we can be’ in case of emergency event

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On April 16, 2007, the United States experienced the worst shooting by a lone gunman in its history. Thirty-two people were killed and 17 were wounded in the Virginia Tech Massacre. The shooting became a primary case study for many universities across the country to enhance emergency procedures.

It is case studies like the shooting at Virginia Tech and other disasters that help develop and further enhance the emergency operating procedures at the University of South Dakota.

“The President puts a very high priority on this,” Tena Haraldson, director of communications at USD, said. “We go through fake emergency exercises, we bring experts in who come in and lead us through scenarios.”

A university committee meets each quarter to update the Emergency Operation Plan (EOP) and each year hosts a training session.

The EOP covers everything from natural disasters to active shooters, to a fire or even a disease outbreak.

“It’s really complex and (the EOP) is something that changes a little bit every year as technology changes,” Haraldson said.

The plan, however, has only been activated twice in recent years, said Pete Jensen, director of the University Police Department.

It was activated in 2011 for the Missouri River flood and in 2013 when a pipe burst in Coyote Village.

“It’s not activated very often,” Haraldson said, because Vermillion has been lucky enough not to have experienced recent natural disasters, but also, “we don’t want to overuse it because when we do it, we want people to pay attention to it.”

The university puts a primary focus on weather-related incidents.

“We focus more on the weather stuff, because that’s probably our biggest threat,” Jensen said.

However, Haraldson said the university is preparing for active shooter situations.

“I think we all think it won’t happen to us,” she said. “Even though we are in a small population area, we understand that it can happen anywhere.”

Prepping for disaster

To prepare for a disaster, the EOP committee hosts an annual table-top training in late spring. In the past they have run exercises for Avian Flu, active shooters and fires.

For UPD, a majority of the training takes place in everyday scenarios. The simple burnt food fire alarm in residence halls is handled the same way a real fire would be handled.

“We still do the same procedure,” said Lt. Jef Rice, who said UPD handles a fire alarm on average at least once a week. “We would maybe just go to next level (if it was a real fire).”

Maintaining communication

USD and the South Dakota Board of Regents have invested in emergency operations. At the Regental level, all public South Dakota universities use the Everbridge emergency alert system to notify students and faculty of university emergencies.

Haraldson said Kim Grieve, dean of students and vice president of Student Services, is in charge of issuing alerts via the Everbridge system.

“It’s really important to go back and update (EverBridge) if they get a new phone because it is going to take your preferred method of communication first,” Haraldson said.

The university pays for special access of certain cell phones to cell towers during an emergency. This allows for vital communication among the university’s top officials during a disaster.