Concerns rise over safety protocol for individuals with disabilities

Monday, March 25, 2019 - 5:34pm

Students with physical disabilities on campus feel unsure of how the University wants them to handle crisis situations.

Students with physical disabilities on campus feel unsure of how the University wants them to handle crisis situations. Buy this photo
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LSA senior Bradley Ebenhoeh was in a residence hall when unfounded reports of an active shooter in Mason Hall surfaced March 16.

“I was in East Quad, and they (the Resident Advisors) ... told us there was an active shooter and recommended to us to get downstairs,” Ebenhoeh said. “That made me feel frightened because there was no response from the University.”

Ebenhoeh, who uses a wheelchair, said he felt especially frightened because he had not been previously informed of any protocol regarding the ‘run, hide, fight’ notification that was later administered by the University of Michigan on March 16 — specifically for students with disabilities, faculty and staff.

“I move slower than everybody else, so when they said, ‘run, hide and fight,’ I could not run,” Ebenhoeh said.

According to the Division of Public Safety and Security website, ‘run, hide, fight’ is a three-step protocol for an active attacker situation. Run — the first step — means to get away from the threat as soon as possible. If a clear path of escape is not possible, the second step — hide — says to find a secure place to hide and barricade yourself. The final step — fight — says to distract and/or incapacitate the attacker. This step is only recommended if one’s life is in imminent danger.

However, the online policy only briefly addresses individuals such as Ebenhoeh, who cannot run from the situation. The section ‘Other Circumstances to Consider’ on the ‘Active Attacker’ page of the DPSS website says to contact DPSS with specific concerns regarding disabled people or other special circumstances.

“How you respond to an active attacker will be dictated by the specific circumstances of the encounter,” the page reads. “In addition, many in our community may need to respond differently as a result of a disability, caregiver relationship, leadership role, unique workspace location, or a variety of other reasons. Please contact us to discuss any specific concerns you may have. Always remember your options: run, hide or fight.”

Ebenhoeh said he did not get any official notification from the University until approximately 20 to 30 minutes after the reports surfaced. He said he was only informed of policy regarding fire drills — another policy he does not think is accomodating to disabled people.

According to the University’s fire evacuation protocol, people with disabilities inside a University building are directed to an “area of rescue assistance,” defined as “areas of refuge” by the state of Michigan building code. Floor marshals, if safe to do so, will conduct checks of these areas and convey information regarding people in the areas to emergency responders. The webpage does not specify where the areas of rescue assistance are in each University building.

Frank Marcinkiewicz, interim University fire marshal, said areas of refuge are readily accessible to individuals with disabilities and are conveniently located along the path of egress within a building.

“These areas are clearly labeled with signage and will typically have an emergency phone device that connects them directly to University DPSS for immediate assistance,” Marcinkiewicz said. “Areas of refuge are designed per code to protect an individual from a fire-related incident for a defined period of time.”

According to Marcinkiewicz, the areas are constructed with a minimum of one-hour fire rating as required by code. This means the materials used to construct the area are able to resist standardized fire exposure for at least one hour.

Ebenhoeh isn’t the only student with concerns about the University’s emergency protocol for people with mobility difficulties. Elizabeth McLain, Music, Theater & Dance doctoral candidate, was a student at Virginia Tech in 2007 when the deadliest school shootings in U.S. history occurred on the campus, resulting in 32 deaths and 17 injuries. In wake of the 12th anniversary of the Virginia Tech shooting next month, McLain said she was very upset that Saturday’s events were handled poorly.

“As a community, we’ve been working very hard to inform universities and try to prevent this from happening, and it kind of feels like a slap in the face when the universities don’t take what we’re saying seriously or don’t learn,” McLain said. “A delay of 30 minutes between when the first people were notified and last people were notified is completely unacceptable.”

McLain, who uses a cane, also expressed concerns regarding the ‘run, hide, fight’ protocol. She said the vast majority of people she spoke to did not know what the protocol meant and also thought the second and third messages sent out by DPSS were too vague.

“It’s a fact that when they send out a message saying, ‘Run, hide, fight,’ which is the standard shorthand for the advice for how to handle a situation, the vast majority of my friends who are fellow students, and some who are instructors and faculty members here, had no idea what that meant or how to use that guidance,” McLain said. “The second and third messages we received were so vague — they said, ‘You’re probably not in any danger,’ but they didn’t give any concrete instructions, so it was unclear if this meant we should shelter in place, this meant you should go ahead and go about your day — this should be clear in every communication.”

McLain is a graduate student instructor and she said she was not trained or made aware of protocol by the University on what to do in emergency situations such as the event of an active attacker. Though she is disabled, McLain said she has more options available to her because she uses a cane. She said she would not know the best way to assist a student with disabilities in her class in the event of an emergency.

“As a graduate student instructor, if I had a disabled student in my classroom while this was going on … I wouldn’t know how to help my students,” McLain said. “I wouldn’t know if I should just stay with them and wait it out, if elevators were an option — that hasn’t been effectively communicated to me, at least.”

At orientation, DPSS currently requires students to watch an active shooter safety training video. University community members can also request training workshops by going to the Presentations and Training section under Prevention and Education on DPSS’ website.

While it is required for students to view the active shooter safety training video at orientation, Melissa Overton, deputy chief of police and public information officer for DPSS, told The Daily in a previous interview the decision to make other training sessions mandatory would have to come from a higher University authority.

Overton also previously told The Daily that DPSS received many complaints of people receiving the emergency alerts late or not at all. She said DPSS is currently working to analyze the emergency alert system and determine what went wrong March 16.

“We did receive multiple complaints on the system,” Overton said. “… We are aware that some of the alerts took a lot longer than they should have, and we are looking into that.”

McLain further expressed her disappointment in the protocol and its lack of catering to disabled individuals. She said she hopes the University improves its protocol in the future.

“From my personal experience, if there had been an incident it would have been very, very bad because of these communication breakdowns,” McLain said. “I’m a little disappointed because most of what I’ve seen out of these universities, this just proves their system doesn’t work and that concerns me. This should actually be a wake-up call that we’re not doing what we should be doing, and we should do everything we can to improve it.”