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The newspaper of The Johns Hopkins University April 30, 2007 | Vol. 36 No. 32
Crisis Response Team Looks Inward — As Always

Since 1999, JHU's watch group has examined and refined best practices

By Greg Rienzi
The Gazette

From the instant the tragedy at Virginia Tech started to unfold, the members of Johns Hopkins' Crisis Response Team began to monitor and track the situation. The CRT members, most of whom are high-ranking university administrators, remained in constant communication with each other as the campus shootings tragically played out, learning what they could from media coverage.

Since the event, as universities across the nation have done, the CRT has looked inward, asking how Hopkins would handle the event and what procedures and infrastructure are in place to decrease the likelihood of a similar experience occurring here.

This is what the CRT does, all the time.

The CRT was formed in the spring of 1999 to manage the university's response to a crisis that would be outside the ability of an individual school or functional unit to handle, such as an outbreak of meningitis or a laboratory fire that destroys a campus building. The CRT, which includes members from each university division, also looks at "top-down crises," ones that perhaps begin with events outside Johns Hopkins but immediately affect the university.

James Zeller, chair of the Crisis Response Team and vice provost for budgets and planning, said that the CRT is constantly in the process of fine-tuning the university's crisis response.

"It doesn't take a tragedy for us to assess our ability to respond to a crisis event. We are constantly looking at how we do things and how we can better deal with an event to minimize its impact or the chances of one happening in the first place. It's all about being proactive," Zeller said. "In the case of the Virginia Tech shootings, we look at the event and translate what appropriate steps, if any, we would need to take. Virginia Tech has a very large student body and a sprawling rural campus, so it has a much different profile than the Homewood campus, but there still can be lessons learned there for us."

He said the university already has done a lot in recent years to make Homewood more secure. Last year, it opened the Homewood Communications Center, a state-of-the-art facility that allows its staff to maintain a constant vigil over the campus, primarily through a "smart" closed-circuit TV system that alerts operators when it spots suspicious activity. Homewood also has a quick and layered notification process in place to respond to a critical event, such as a fire or shooting. Security guards are stationed at all the campus residences and quads, and Resident Assistants are also tied into a first-response system.

No matter how effective the team feels the system is, however, Zeller said that the CRT is always looking at ways to enhance it. For example, months before the Virginia Tech shootings, team members had already begun to look into how the Homewood campus's 87 blue light emergency phones might be used as a sort of "siren alert," flashing and emitting a sound in the case of a critical event. The university is currently assessing the feasibility and practicality of this with the vendor.

Zeller said that while the CRT, in the wake of the Virginia Tech shootings, has focused on security measures and crisis response at the Homewood campus, the team looks at what measures are in place at all the campuses, and what can be learned from them.

"That is one reason we have representation from all the university divisions, so we can look at what one division or unit is doing and see if it's applicable elsewhere," he said.

Crisis response, Zeller said, is a full-time job.


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