The ‘Expert Q&A’ series highlights the experiences of practitioners and thought-leaders in the field of Emergency Management & Response.
We had chance to speak with Fred Bealefeld about his in-classroom experience with the March 31, 2014 lockdown at Stevenson University. Fred is a remarkable individual whose 31-year career in law enforcement included serving as Police Commissioner of the Baltimore Police Department. Since the start of his tenure as Commissioner in 2007, Fred lead an unprecedented decrease in crime and homicides in the City of Baltimore. Between retirement from the force in 2012 and joining UnderArmour as Chief Security Officer, Fred was a member of the faculty at Stevenson University in Maryland. It was during that time the campus was placed under lockdown when individuals with shotguns were identified near the campus.
Omnilert: What happened during the lockdown on March 31st?
Fred Bealefeld: The incident occurred at the new Stevenson campus. I was in the middle of teaching a class when the lockdown occurred. It was in the early afternoon when we received the first alert. I had about 30 undergrads in that class. Most of them were freshmen and sophomores.
Omnilert: Tell us about the notification that you received.
FB: I was in the middle of my lecture and I used the PowerPoint system. Most of my lectures were constructed around PowerPoint and projected onto a screen using the university’s computer network. We have a policy; I have a policy, of no cell phones during class. All the students had their cell phones put away. While I was giving the lecture an alert came over the screen onto the projector with my PowerPoint — “Active shooter alert with directions to shelter in place.” We all read it at the same time. My first thought was that it was a drill. I went quickly to the computer terminal and saw that there was a flashing alert there. My phone and the students’ phones all started activating with the same message. I’d say from the first couple seconds of thinking that it was a drill to less than 10 seconds understanding that it was real, we started to move and take action to make ourselves safe.
I had a lot of experience being on the other side of those alerts but no experience being on the inside of those alerts.
Omnilert: You were on the other side of the incident. What happened inside your classroom?
FB: So all my experience and training was as a responder, not as a recipient. Not a person who would be utilizing the service but someone who would be responding to the service. The university had prepared the students around some very basics on drill response or active shooter response. Some things you would assume as a basic response can’t be assumed. For instance, something as basic as “the professor or the instructor are in charge” during those times of emergencies and they (students) should look and follow the directions of their professors or instructor is really a critical piece. Laying that as a foundational piece in the response of the people that are affected by the alert was critical to how we interacted and responded. For instance, they automatically assumed that role, and made me giving them direction and instruction and limiting their movement and circumscribing what we were going to do and not do was all very, very critical. It changed the dynamic of our relationship from providing educational instruction to “go sit down in this specific area” and “you three go do this” and giving very non-academic instruction — was a critical part. The university had done a very good job of preparing people by way of their procedures for those kinds of things. I think that lends itself to getting people’s cooperation and collaboration so that you can make yourself safe and secure.
I moved all of the students away from the windows and found interior walls that were more safe for us to be against and around as opposed to exterior walls or hallway walls. We moved the students, concentrated the students, into the back portion of the room. We turned off all the lights. We did most of the things that you would expect to do in response to an active shooter because we didn’t know where they were. We had the alert.
Omnilert: At that point, did you have any details on the situation?
FB: We didn’t know whether they were in our buildings or where they were or where they were around the campus. We did all the things that you would expect. We barricaded the door as best we could. We silenced our phones. We kept very quiet. We moved away and blocked the glass windows to the hallway. We kept very quiet and still trying to hear/listen for any signs of danger or help. We designated and developed a plan for what we would do if there were additional kind of threats or safety or security threats and what we would do in response.
And it worked. It was helpful to keep us occupied for the first several moments of the alert. We were in our space and held in our space for several hours. The planning and the discussions and all of that helped to occupy our energy and reduce our anxiety because we got the notification pretty quickly. We formed a plan very quickly. We took some action. All of that lent itself to minimizing our stress and our fears during the actual event.
Omnilert: Now how would you say that your background as a Police Commissioner helped to inform your perspective on the situation?
FB: First of all, I had contacts so I could call the County Police Chief. I could call law enforcement officials to get updates and find out what was going on. We had media capabilities. We could see the TV. We could patch in through the computer into live feeds of the news services. We could see what was going on outside and on the campus around us and get some detailed information as well. We had social media capabilities through people’s phones. That was at once helpful and on the other hand it was a detriment in that many of the kids in the first moments of the event had bad information; got wrong information in terms of where the shooting was occurring, victims, you know there was a lot of bad information coming across some of the text messages and social media that the students were sharing. Almost all of it was wrong. Using contacts and getting good sources of information to them was especially helpful in being able to sustain where we were for so long without police interaction.
Omnilert: So did it turn out to be a false alarm?
FB: What happened was that a student had some sort of pellet rifle and was trying to shoot small animals adjacent to the campus or was keeping it in his vehicle to shoot small animals in the woods near the campus. Either someone saw him walking to or from the woods and then putting that pellet rifle in his personal vehicle. That triggered the alarm. No one was shot. He wasn’t shooting at any of the students. The people who triggered the alarm did the right thing because very few people are weapons experts and someone carrying any sort of weapon around the campus ought to cause that sort of notification. I was incredibly impressed at how quickly and thoroughly the alert was activated and communicated across a broad spectrum of devices and reached all of us so immediately.
Again, as a consumer, it was a very, very impressive activation and system to see. From a security standpoint from someone who spent their profession dedicated to security and safety it was very impressive to see it in a real situation.
As a consumer of it, when you’re in an emergency, in a really stressful, dangerous thing, some of the things that bring you a sense of calm or a sense of security or renews or helps you reinforce a sense of security is when things work! When things don’t work and things aren’t functioning it raises your anxiety levels and your stress levels. But when things around you are working the way they should work, it brings an incredible level of calm and reassurance that you’re going to be ok. So having that first fundamental piece work so effectively was a calming influence for me and certainly the students who were there.
Let me give you an example of something that would not have worked. Before the advent of systems like Omnilert, we relied on something as simple as a fire alarm. Think how much stress and fear and uncertainty that a fire alarm evoked. That loud siren or bell or however it is designed. All you hear is that bell and it’s ringing. You have no information. You really don’t know if it’s a fire or someone trying to do you harm and so that fire alarm creates a great deal of uncertainty or some sort of siren or you know people rushing from room to room yelling and shouting orders. It’s not effective. It just heightens the tension and fear and apprehension and the stress levels that people have. So to get an effective delivery of an emergency notification system which tells you what the threat is, you can start taking action to make yourself safe. It gives you confidence and certainly reduces your anxiety.
Omnilert: In your opinion, especially as a former Police Commissioner, what are your thoughts on how Stevenson University handled everything? You mentioned the effectiveness of Omnilert and that the alert system worked really well. On the events following that, what are your opinions?
FB: I thought that the alarm system worked well. We worked well together as a team. To see that things were occurring around us but we weren’t staying informed on them was a little frustrating; but I thought that their response to the physical incident was very commendable and they isolated that threat very quickly. The university, how they handled it in the aftermath in terms of informing all of us, the exact nature of the incident, I thought they did a good job, a very commendable job in communicating.
Omnilert: So the communication, not necessarily to each other in the classroom, needed to be more frequent and more timely?
FB: In the aftermath there was a great deal of information that was shared. It certainly helped to reduce the anxiety of the students about what the true threat was and get the facts out there about what occurred and more importantly about what didn’t occur. You know in the first few moments people thought that people were being shot and there were shooting victims on the campus and those kinds of things. To get that kind of information out rapidly was important to rumor control and reducing fear levels around the campus.
Omnilert: I agree.
FB: Your Chief Technology Officer (Nick Gustavsson) wound up calling me or sending me a message asking if I was ok because he knew I was teaching there. To get that call from him was very reassuring and an awesome thing to have that contact with people in the outside world like “Hey, we’re thinking about you — and be safe.”
Omnilert: That’s nice and reminds me, you mentioned about teaching criminal justice or anything emergency planning: “It’s not just about teaching someone how to drive quickly or how to handcuff somebody or how to wear a uniform. Its about how you think about everything that is essential.”
FB: I think that’s right, absolutely right. It’s not enough to sell a product or develop a product. You have to really understand and believe in the application of it that there are real people that are going to be at the end of it, that there are real people who are going to be utilizing it. You’re designing these things and building these things and you hope you never have to use them, but if you do, you want them to be dependable and be able to really save someone’s life and keep them out of harm’s way. It can’t be about just making sales and creating something cool. You have to believe on that back end that you’re doing something good and helping people in a very real and substantive way.