The Maginot Line

The toxic chemical cloud drifted ominously towards the campus when the wind shifted. The deadly chemicals would soon saturate the campus. Students walked to their classes, read on the grass and worked on term papers in their dorm rooms, unaware that a lethal plume was making its way to campus from the tanker truck accident scene a short distance from the campus. Faculty members likewise focused on their classroom lectures without a clue that they and their students were in grave danger.

Fortunately, the above scenario is simply part of a functional exercise that I recently conducted to help campus crisis team members test their emergency operations plans and hone their skills in simulated crisis conditions. As previously mentioned in this column, the most carefully developed and detailed emergency operations plans are still mere theory until they are tested by a real event or with appropriate emergency operations exercises. Serving as the lead technical expert for the nation’s largest state government campus safety center which has responded to more than 300 campus crisis situations around the nation was revealing. These experiences demonstrated to me that very few institutions of higher learning have viable emergency operations plans. Even more so, these incidents, and the review of many emergency operations plans from around the nation impressed upon me that many campus and public safety officials are significantly overconfident in their prevention strategies and level of preparedness for crisis situations.

Being a history buff, I sometimes use the example of the Maginot Line in France as an analogy. French political and military leaders were so confident in the ability of their complex and carefully prepared fortifications, they were blind to the actual risks to France from a German invasion, even though a German officer wrote and published on the tactical concept that would eventually be used for the successful assault on France. The huge and well equipped French army would be overwhelmed by the attack using a basic flaw that had not been recognized and corrected by French leaders. The attack quickly overwhelmed French forces and stunned the nation’s leaders. The world watched in horror as an army that appeared to be more formidable on paper than it actually was found itself overrun through the use of superior tactics. One of the most powerful nations in Europe would fall and much French blood would be spilled due to this oversight.

On a smaller scale, the safety of many students, faculty and staff is often reliant on flawed prevention and preparedness concepts. Dependence upon untested theory when there are proven ways to test our systems is like playing Russian roulette with the lives of students and employees. Experience and careful research illustrates that criminal incidents, and many hazardous conditions often remain undetected on our campuses. Unless and until serious efforts to evaluate the danger level on campus are completed, the real level of safety is in question. I have never conducted a tactical site survey of a higher education campus where hazardous conditions were not discovered so they could be corrected. Tactical Site Surveys should be completed for every campus each year. In the same manner, annual surveys of students and staff are one of the most reliable ways to identify risk before someone gets hurt. Though not usually as reliable as these forms of evaluation, another basic assessment tool is a careful analysis of reported incidents. This assessment will pay the biggest dividends when effective efforts to encourage reporting, incident tracking software is used and accurate reporting procedures are followed.

On the preparedness side of the house, appropriate emergency operations exercises should be conducted annually after the emergency operations plan has been developed. Initially, only drills, table top exercises and functional exercises should be used before moving on to full scale exercises. A properly designed full scale exercise normally takes six to eighteen months of preparation. Make sure that the exercise is coordinated by someone with experience in the field of emergency management and is evaluated by external personnel. And most importantly, determine what specific areas of your plan are to be tested. Drills and exercises also afford an exceptional opportunity for staff to practice using plans and emergency procedures.

You can evaluate efforts respond to crisis situations and more importantly, reduce the odds that your plan will be needed. Don’t find yourself in the terrible situation that many of your colleagues have faced because of sometimes simple but disastrous oversights. Make sure that history does not repeat itself on your campus.

About the Author

Michael S. Dorn has helped conduct security assessments for more than 6,000 K-12 schools, keynotes conferences internationally and has published 27 books including Staying Alive – How to Act Fast and Survive Deadly Encounters. He can be reached at

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