The Virginia Tech Shootings: A Case for Redundant Communications
By Fred Burton
Campus police at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University in Blacksburg, Va., on April 17 identified the perpetrator of the shooting rampage on campus a day earlier as South Korean English student Cho Seung Hui. Thirty-three people died as a result of the attack and several others were injured, some seriously.
The shooting began about 7:15 a.m. on the fourth floor of co-ed dormitory West Ambler Johnston Hall. According to reports, Cho shot and killed his girlfriend and then a resident assistant who responded to the sound of the shots. Police were investigating those shootings when Cho stormed Norris Hall, a classroom building some half a mile away, and opened fire on faculty and students, killing another 30 people. The rampage ended when Cho killed himself.
Authorities have released few details about the attack, though several important points can be ascertained from the known facts. Given the history of school and university shootings in the United States, the certainty that others will occur and the warning from the FBI about a possible Beslan-style militant attack, the lessons from the Virginia Tech attack can be instructive -- perhaps even lifesaving.
First, the shooting was planned in advance and methodically executed. This conclusion is supported by the fact that Cho carried two pistols and loads of ammunition, that he went directly to another building for the second phase of the attack and that he used chains to secure the main doors to Norris Hall before opening fire. The chains served to keep targets inside the building and to impede the entry of responding law enforcement officers. Cho had studied the building and planned accordingly.
Although criticism has begun over the level of security at Norris Hall, and Virginia Tech in general, attacks of this nature cannot be prevented by security devices and programs. Educational institutions, especially sprawling universities, are soft targets that cannot be hermetically sealed like a federal penitentiary. As such, prison-style security measures would be not only impractical, stifling and prohibitively expensive, but also ultimately ineffective -- because even tight security cannot stop a determined, suicidal attacker.
On campuses, even the best physical security measures -- closed-circuit television coverage, metal detectors, identification badges, locks and so forth -- have finite utility. These measures serve a valuable purpose, but they cannot stand alone. For one thing, the technology cannot evaluate and react. Also, it can be observed, learned and even fooled. Moreover, because some systems frequently produce false alarms, warnings in real danger situations can be brushed aside. Given these shortcomings, it is quite possible for anyone planning an act of violence to map out, quantify and then defeat or bypass physical security devices. In fact, security devices can be relied on too much, resulting in a false sense of security.
History shows us that even adding guards into the mix is not enough to prevent attacks. The March 2005 shooting in Red Lake, Minn., demonstrates that even strict access-control measures, such as ID badges, metal detectors and security guards, can be circumvented -- or neutralized. In Red Lake, the security guard was the first person killed.
Indicators of Planning
In past cases, school shooters often have given prior warnings as to their intentions. In other words, they did not just "snap" and go on a killing spree. In most cases, their attacks were methodically planned, often over a long period of time. Jeff Weise, the teenage student arrested for the Minnesota shootings, allegedly spent more than a year planning his attack, including conducting walk-through rehearsals and noting the location of security cameras. Weise also had help from a friend, who eventually pleaded guilty to transmitting threatening messages via the Internet.
As in workplace attacks, one of the biggest contributing factors to school shootings is the failure to identify the warning signs or to take the signs (even obvious ones) seriously. Because of this, following the April 1999 Columbine shooting, the U.S. Department of Education and the U.S. Secret Service conducted an extensive study of school shootings and developed educational materials that have helped raise the awareness of such warning signs.
The warning signs include sudden changes in a person's behavior, his or her decreased productivity, withdrawal from friends or the sudden display of negative traits, such as irritation, poor hygiene or snapping at or abusing fellow students. Perhaps the most indicative signs that serious trouble is looming are talk about suicide and/or the expression of actual or veiled threats. In most previous cases, especially those involving detailed planning, the factors leading to the violent outburst have built up over a long time. These factors have included failed romantic relationships, stress from family relationships, failing grades or perceived injustice at the hands of peers or teachers. As was highlighted in the Columbine case, quite often the shooter fantasizes about committing the attack for some time and even shares those fantasies with a friend or via an online form such as a blog or Web site.
Due to the government's educational efforts, several attacks have been foiled by people who have recognized and reported the warning signs to authorities. Of course in some cases, the signs have been as blatant as students sharing their plans for an attack in advance with their friends or warning other students not to go to school on a certain day.
Although the details of the events leading up to the Virginia Tech shooting are not yet clear, Cho apparently spent quite some time planning his attack, which strongly suggests he gave some indication of his intent that was not recognized or that he even made threats that went unheeded. There are now unconfirmed reports that Cho set at least one fire on campus, that he had stalked a student, that he had been sent for counseling and that he was taking an antidepressant. At least some of these indicators likely are true, and we anticipate that others will surface as the investigation into the attack progresses.
Some of the most critical comments about the Virginia Tech administration have centered on the long delay in notifying the faculty and student body that a shooter was at large, that the eventual warning was not transmitted to all and that it was confusing to those who did receive it.
One source at Virginia Tech said many people received no warning and that communication of the event was "very much a case of who had cell phone or wireless devices before the system was overloaded and crashed." In some university buildings, such as the library, the public address system is not used to convey emergency instructions. The source said the result was that large clusters of students "seemed to be caught between orders to go inside and some sort of building evacuation instructions," and thus remained outside. This confusion was cleared up once police began using the PA systems on their vehicles to convey clear instructions to the students.
So perhaps one of the biggest lessons from this attack will be the need for large institutions to have redundant and overlapping notification systems that will convey clear and consistent instructions. Such systems could incorporate e-mail notification, text messages and public address systems. Of course any such system would have to be routinely tested and refined to become more effective.
Historically, incidents of school shootings tend to spawn similar attacks so that three or four major incidents occur within a few weeks of one another. Given that precedent, the FBI's current concerns over a mass attack against a school, and the April 20 anniversary of the Columbine attack (which also is Adolf Hitler's birthday), it would be prudent for university security directors, local school boards, parents and students to review or establish emergency plans.
Like 9/11, the massive 2003 U.S. power outage and Hurricane Katrina, the confusion evidenced in Blacksburg highlights the need for contingency plans in the event of an accident, natural disaster or attack by criminals or militants.
Such plans are important not only for corporations and schools, but also for families and individuals. Furthermore, there should be a plan for each regular location -- home, work and school -- that outlines what each person will do and where they will go should they be forced to evacuate. This means establishing meeting points for family members who might be split up -- and backup points in case the first one also is affected by the disaster.
When such incidents occur, the ensuing chaos often results in difficulty communicating, as cell phone and regular phone circuits become overwhelmed with traffic. The lack of ability to communicate with loved ones can greatly enhance the panic felt during a crisis. Perhaps the most value derived from having a personal and family contingency plan is a reduction in the amount of stress that results from not being able to immediately contact a loved one. Knowing that everyone is following the plan -- and that contact eventually will be established -- frees each person to concentrate on the more pressing issue of evacuation.
Because of this, communication is an important part of any such plan, and redundant forms of communication must be established in advance. Past crises such as 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina have shown that even if cell phone and regular phone circuits are jammed, text messages and e-mail frequently will continue to work. This means that every member of the family, including technophobes, must learn to use text messaging and e-mail. While no emergency plan can account for every eventuality, such plans do provide a framework from which to work, even during times of panic.
The open nature of schools and universities makes preventing attacks on campuses extremely difficult -- though a student body, faculty and staff that know the warning signs can be a vital line of defense. Once an attack begins, proper communications and well-designed contingency plans can minimize the casualty count.