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April 2010

In preparing for the worst, we strive to be the best

Earlier this week, we had a scary what-if scenario to consider: our response to a shooting incident on campus. The two gunmen, hostages and multiple victims were actors participating in an exercise, but the police and other emergency responders were real, and they handled this mock crisis with true professionalism.

Any real large-scale incident would quickly involve our partners from Chapel Hill, Carrboro and Orange County. So they were, of course, a very important part of our drill. We had colleagues from the Chapel Hill police -- including Chief Brian Curran -- and fire departments, Carrboro Police Department, and Orange County's Sheriff's Office and emergency services. We are so grateful for the time and attention all of these departments devoted to this exercise and in working with Chief Jeff McCracken and our Department of Public Safety.

All of us went into the drill not knowing much more than its location and that it would involve a shooting. But as the situation evolved, we came to see how each of the various units on and off campus brought certain critical strengths to the effort. For example, when a twist in the drill developed that one of the shooters might have been carrying a possibly radioactive substance, we were able to call upon the expertise of our campus Environment, Health and Safety department to assess the threat. When the hostage situation developed, the Chapel Hill Police Department's hostage negotiation team was able to step in and help secure the release of the hostages and the surrender of the gunman.

The consultants for the exercise, who have been conducting similar drills on the other UNC system campuses, told us afterward that they were impressed by the seamlessness of the cooperation among the different law enforcement and emergency response units. They noted that they saw none of the turf issues that sometimes spring up in other exercises -- or real life. That didn't surprise me. We have a great track record for working well together during many events that require wide-ranging coordination and cooperation, from handling the surging downtown crowds of Halloweens past to keeping national championship celebrations on Franklin Street from getting out of hand.

As an institution, learning is important to us, and each time we do an exercise like this or go through a real crisis we learn something new. This time, I learned two lessons. One is just how difficult it is to balance the field command's autonomy with trying to communicate what's happening to the 52,000 people on campus and at the hospital -- as well as in the community -- who are waiting for information. The other lesson, which I'm still considering, is deciding how we determine when it's safe to tell people to stop sheltering in place -- and how realistic it is to expect them to stay put for hours at a time.

As I said at the media briefing immediately following the event, I'm proud to be part of this university and to see the commitment the campus police, the Chapel Hill police and all the other participants in the exercise, including our university administrators, have to protecting the safety of the people on our campus.

Here's something else I learned: It's good to know that, whether it's just a drill or a real crisis, our off-campus partners have our back.


Holden Thorp is chancellor of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Readers can contact him at

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