Chapter 10: All at Once: Never is the Past

by Chris Kimball, Ph.D.

Posted on April 11, 2019

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A few years ago, California Lutheran University did what many of you do on a regular basis: we held a table-top emergency drill.

Dozens of us spent one half of a day responding to an unfolding series of scenarios that were presented in rapid succession. We began by simulating how we would respond to an elevator fire in a residence hall and, by the time we were done, had had to deal (though not literally) with flooding, failed traffic signals, and a dead body. Late in the day, I turned to Ryan VanOmmeren, Associate VP of Planning and Services and chair of our Emergency Operations Center (EOC), and said, “C’mon, Ryan, we would never have those things happen all at once!” 

This past November, as Ryan has gently reminded me on several occasions, we did have those things happen all at once. Well, not those exact scenarios, but ones that were even more devastating and tragic. And not all in one afternoon, but in just a matter of days. As many of you may have read or seen, on the night of November 8, 2018, there was a mass shooting at a country-western dance club in our normally quiet city of Thousand Oaks. Dozens of our students were there for line dancing as part of the weekly Wednesday “College Night.” One of our recent alums, a well-known and much-loved member of the campus community, was killed trying to protect others. Many fellow students saw him gunned down as they escaped the scene by any means possible, including breaking windows and jumping to safety. In all, 12 people were killed, including one police officer, himself the father of a Cal Lutheran alum. The gunman was also killed. Everyone on campus, and in the city, knew someone who was there that night. 

The following day, as the Cal Lutheran campus and the Thousand Oaks community came to understand the death toll and begin to process our collective grief, fierce wildfires broke out in our city and in surrounding communities. At first, the fires seemed like they might threaten campus. In the end, we were safe, but many Cal Lutheran faculty, staff, and students living in the region were evacuated, and some lost their homes. Others were traumatized by the apocalyptic scenes of fire and smoke. 

The following day, as the Cal Lutheran campus and the Thousand Oaks community came to understand the death toll and begin to process our collective grief, fierce wildfires broke out in our city and in surrounding communities.  

Shortly thereafter, the campus and surrounding neighborhood lost access to the internet for almost 24 hours, leaving us unable to communicate with our students, parents, staff, and faculty via email or the web. The EOC had to shift to using our cellphones to access Facebook and Gmail, sites not reliant on our campus network, as a way to reach as many people as possible.

What’s more, our fall play, scheduled to open two days after the shooting, was columbinus, a powerful and wrenching examination of the Columbine High School shooting. How could the campus cope with such a play in the wake of the shootings? The administration, with the eventual consent of the actors and the director, canceled the first weekend of the show. After much conversation, it was agreed that the play would be performed the following weekend, but in private for an invitation-only audience. This performance would allow the actors and crew to tell a story about gun violence that they had worked so hard to tell—and one that they now believed needed to be told more than ever. The single performance also allowed the production to enter in—and be selected for—the American College Theatre Festival. It was a powerful performance—well-staged and acted—but hard to watch. At least it was for me. 

Then, just a day or so later, there was a bomb scare in the middle of night at an apartment building close to campus that led to a 20-minute campus lockdown. It turned out not to be a bomb and not much of a threat, but, by that point, many of us were exhausted and ready to give up, close the school, and try to regroup. 

In fact, many students and their families wanted us to close, perhaps for as many as two weeks through the Thanksgiving holiday. After consulting with our campus counselors and a faculty member whose research work focuses on the aftermath of mass shootings, we decided to remain open in order to provide some measure of routine to help the grieving process. Acknowledging, however, that everyone grieves in their own way, we asked faculty to be flexible with students who could not bring themselves to be in class or who had been evacuated by the fires. Absences, delayed assignments, lessons replaced by conversation about tragedy—all were accepted as part of the healing process. We also asked students to understand that many of their faculty were equally affected and to cut them some slack, too. But the decision to stay open was controversial and there were many emails, phone calls, and social media posts criticizing our decision. 

Now, a few months later, the healing process is underway. And so is the learning process. 

So, what did we learn? The days and weeks of November 2018 tested our emergency operations, and we have learned a lot there. An important lesson was that our Emergency Operations Plan needed reconceptualization. Like most such plans, it was based on FEMA best practices and focused on operational recovery. In November, restarting operations was not the most important task, other than getting the campus network up and running. Instead, our job was to get clear messages out to as many constituencies as possible. Air quality measures, where one should go get help, where one should go to give help—these were just some of the kinds of information that had to be shared widely. The speed by which news, much of it wrong, spread through social media meant that we could not rely on formal statements, press releases, and the like. Our sense is that the last few years have seen a dramatic change in the communications environment. So, while operational recovery will always be important (we are in California, after all, and have been promised a major earthquake), we have put a much higher priority on how we say what we need to say, quickly and accurately. Now we are planning to purchase a new, more flexible, and more functional emergency notification system, and the EOC itself will change in composition. In this social media era, it has become apparent that timely messaging to our on-campus and off-campus constituencies is crucial. 

Most of us have redundancies built into our networks. But you probably need more.  

Losing our network was one area that did fit the category of restoring business operations. We learned some things there, too. Most of us have redundancies built into our networks. But you probably need more. For example, two different cable providers supply our internet, television, and so on. The fire, however, burned a facility that both providers used. In the region, though, a fiber optic service remained active, and satellite television was also unaffected. But we didn’t use the fiber optic service and only one campus office had satellite television. We learned that we need to expand the kinds of technologies that we use. 

Also, be sure to test your backups! In our case, our network was fully backed up on servers in another state. What we didn’t know (but should have) was that the servers would only come up when triggered by a message sent from campus. With our campus network down, we could not bring up the other system. A staff member ended up driving to that other state, though by the time he arrived our network service had been restored to campus. We have fixed that problem and now we can activate the back-ups from anywhere. And, yes, we have tested it. 

Lessons were also learned about the EOC and its composition. The team worked together over many long days and nights making necessary, sometimes difficult, decisions. We did not get everything right, but my colleagues demonstrated constant compassion, care, and creativity under immense pressure. Several did so while having to deal with the evacuations of their homes and other personal challenges. 

Much of the EOC’s time was spent crafting messages to various campus constituencies. Normally, none of us would recommend writing by committee. In this case, however, the insights provided by a group of 12 representing different constituencies and perspectives allowed us to address things that one or two of us might well have missed. 

We also learned that policies and procedures are essential. But so is the ability to adjust on the fly, to make decisions in unexpected situations. The EOC’s flexibility and creativity were apparent almost immediately, and, with the benefit of hindsight, I would lift that up as being the equal of specialized expertise. It is important to have a box, but, in a crisis, it is essential to think outside of it. 

We also learned that policies and procedures are essential. But so is the ability to adjust on the fly, to make decisions in unexpected situations.  

Most of all, we learned about the compassion and reliance of our community: students, faculty, staff, alumni, neighbors, and so on. While the campus will continue to mourn our losses, we also saw firsthand how much community members care for each other. Almost without exception, the faculty, staff, and students rallied to support each other and to help the surrounding community, focusing on serving the neighbor, not serving personal interests. 

Like my EOC colleagues, I will always remember the meeting with students to discuss how we were moving forward, including the decision to remain open. We expected lots of complaints. Instead, the first student question was about how students might help first responders and others in need. Another student immediately chimed in to say that she and some friends would be in the campus dining hall that afternoon making peanut butter sandwiches for those in need and invited those assembled to join in. And almost every question that followed was in that same spirit: who needed clothes or blankets? When would the Red Cross shelter on campus be open to serve our homeless neighbors? Where could one give blood? All of us were profoundly moved, some of us to tears, by that display of servant leadership by the students who were there that day. 

The whole experience was a test for our campus community, and it was a test that we passed. If there was any saving grace in that horrible month, it was the recognition that when it mattered most, the campus stood together: a valuable lesson, but one that I hope you never have to learn in the way that we did.