Planning for the unexpected

Posted on Friday, September 8, 2017

Water cascades down Dr. Penfield and onto McTavish in Jan. 2013, after a broken water main caused massive flooding in Montreal’s downtown core.

Mass notification systems among tools that have emerged to keep campuses safe

By Julie Fortier

Convocation is an important milestone in the life of university students and their loved ones and is meant to be memorable. The June 3, 2014, ceremony of McGill’s Faculty of Arts, however, is memorable for unusual reasons.

The Convocation tent set up every year on lower campus for the spring ceremonies almost collapsed that day due to a powerful thunderstorm that brought heavy winds and rain. The tent had to be evacuated, leading to confusion and frustration when the ceremony resumed in a smaller location that could not accommodate all guests.

“We were prepared to deal with incidents like a protest or a disruptive person in the crowd or on stage, for example, but we had not expected a weather event that could affect the stability of the tent,” says Hugo Bourcier, Emergency Preparedness Officer, who was part of the security operations team at the time. A committee involving several units now meets every year prior to Convocation to discuss procedures should an unforeseen disruption occur.

Though emergency management teams try to plan for the unexpected, “the unexpected changes,” says Emergency Planning Officer Sarah Delisle, mentioning vehicular attacks as an example of new threats the University now has to take into account. “The downtown campus is a large open space, accessible to members of the public and tourists,” she says. “Being located close to the Premier’s office also puts the downtown campus at risk of getting spillover effects from protests held nearby,” as happened during the student protests of 2012.

“Current events definitely dictate how people react and how people prepare,” adds Pierre Barbarie, Director of Campus Public Safety (CPS), who has been at McGill since 2000 and witnessed a dramatic change in mentality after the Virginia Tech mass shooting in 2007, which left 33 people dead.

“[Universities] went from a reactionary mode to a proactive one, including McGill. It led to an acknowledgment from the whole university community that there was a need to increase security and safety measures and a need for planning, preparedness and training,” Barbarie adds.

Tried and tested tools

To prepare for and manage emergencies, McGill uses the Incident Command System (ICS) and has an established Emergency Operations Centre (EOC). These two structures are used all around the world by emergency responders such as fire and police departments.

During an emergency, McGill responders set up an Incident Command Post to manage the event on the ground. If the emergency threatens the normal operations of the University or if additional resources are needed, the EOC is activated to provide strategic direction and support. Several key units – from Student Life and Learning to communications – are represented at the EOC to ensure a coordinated response across the University. All Incident Command and EOC responders receive training through regular tabletop exercises or functional drills.

“The flood on McTavish St. in 2013 was our first real test of these structures and they proved very successful,” Barbarie says. “Of course the flood caused a lot of damage, but people worked around the clock and because they were trained, everything that needed to be done was done.”

Important tips to stay safe

The EOC also oversees communications to the McGill community during an emergency, using a variety of tools:

  • The McGill mobile application is an important tool that McGill students, staff and faculty should make sure to download to stay informed during emergencies. To receive alerts, users must keep the notifications for the McGill app turned on in the operating system settings, though the notifications within the app itself can be turned off.
  • The Alertus software displays pop-up alerts on computers. The software is automatically installed on all McGill PC desktops but Mac users and students or staff who own laptops must download it.
  • Emergency alerts may also be sent to staff landlines and staff and students emails. Community members are also encouraged to register their mobile phone to receive text messages and voicemail messages on their mobile (though these will eventually be phased out in favour of the McGill app).
  • McGill’s social media channels have also become an efficient tool to get instructions out to the community.

You can help keep the McGill community safe by always following the instructions issued in the emergency alerts.

The CPS website also includes a lot of useful information on how to stay safe, including a video on what to do in an unlikely but possible active shooter situation. CPS also offers a workshop on this topic.

In case of an emergency, community members should call 911 immediately and 514-398-3000 (downtown) or 514-398-7777 (Mac campus), so Security Services personnel can meet emergency responders and direct them to the right location.

Sept. 11-15, 2017 is Safety Week at McGill, featuring a variety of activities brought to you by Campus Public Safety and Environmental Health and Safety, in collaboration with external organizations like Vélo-Québec and the Montreal police and fire departments. For more information, visit the Safety Week website.

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