STU revisits emergency procedures

President Cochrane says university may need better crisis management

Alert: Many universities across the country have started using a text messaging notification system to alert students of emergencies Ma “I don’t know that anybody ever knows they’re ready (for an emergency), but you’d like to think you’ve got people in place.” (Tom Bateman/AQ)
Alert: Many universities across the country have started using a text messaging notification system to alert students of emergencies Ma “I don’t know that anybody ever knows they’re ready (for an emergency), but you’d like to think you’ve got people in place.” (Tom Bateman/AQ)

While St. Thomas University has been able to respond well to most emergency situations, Dennis Cochrane, president and vice chancellor at STU, says he’s not sure the university could handle something on a massive scale.

“Someone said to me one day, ‘What if we had a Virgina Tech or a [Dawson College] incident? Are we ready and could we be prepared to deal with that?’”

“I don’t know that anybody ever knows they’re ready but you’d like to think you’ve got people in place who are ready to support the students who are there.

“I have reason to believe our people would turn themselves inside out to perform their job functions in a difficult time.”

One solution that many universities across the country have adopted is a text message notification system that alerts students when there’s a crisis on campus.

At Dalhousie University in Halifax, students can sign up for Dal Alert. The system notifies students via text message when the campus is closed because of severe weather or for more unnatural cases like a fire.

St. Thomas University has examined bringing in a similar notification system, said Bill MacLean, director of facilities management.

“We’ve been looking at the best way to do mass messaging. We’re not convinced [text messaging] is the best way,” he said.

MacLean said STU is concerned with how many people a text message notification system would reach during class time when some people may have their phones off.

Another option the university has considered is having a flashing message appear on the screens of computers installed in every classroom at the university, MacLean said.

After the murder of professor John McKendy in 2008, the university implemented a crisis management team. Students were notified via email of the death of the professor and of class cancellations.

After emergencies, the crisis management team evaluates how they handled the crisis. The lessons the team learned from the crisis play a part in refining the emergency procedures so mistakes aren’t made twice.

According to Cochrane, STU benefits from its partnership with UNB when it comes to dealing with emergencies. STU currently contracts its security services to UNB.

“Some of our abilities to deal with emergencies are probably better than other campuses…because we’re not just 2,400. In this case, we’re part of 8,000, which helps,” he said.

In the end though, the most important part of responding to any type of emergency on campus would be notifying students, staff and faculty.

Trev Gonnason, director of risk management at UNB, said when the university last looked at implementing a text message notification system, they were challenged by “issues of technology and capacity.”

Universities need to have multiple ways of contacting people when crisis hits, Gonnason said.

“In an emergency, you want to be able to reach the most people in the shortest period of time. The [notification] systems in place in larger institutions can only send out so many [text and e-mail] messages at once.

“Even though we think of technology as being instantaneous there is still…a limitation of how many notices can go out at once.”

While STU’s crisis management procedures aren’t available online, interested students can read about them in the facilities management office in George Martin Hall.

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