EDMOND — Emergency preparedness is always a serious issue for college officials, and that point is driven home even more in the aftermath of a major crisis, officials said.
University of Central Oklahoma officials tested the university's ability to respond to an emergency situation at a training exercise Thursday.
Although plans for the exercise had been in the works since April, UCO emergency management coordinator Norman Nieves said the conversation about campus emergency management took on a different tone after a gun massacre at an elementary school in Newtown, Conn., that left 20 children and six employees dead.
“Everybody's eyes are on the schools right now,” Nieves said.
Joining UCO officials in the exercise were a number of other agencies, including the Edmond Police Department, Edmond Fire Department and the Emergency Medical Services Authority.
The training exercise included a simulated emergency in which three students had committed suicide by inhaling hydrogen sulfide gas in a bathroom in the UCO's West Hall, a women's dormitory.
According to the scenario, fumes from the gas had spread from the third-floor bathroom throughout the building, sickening other students who lived in the building.
Student and staff volunteers playing the building's residents told emergency responders about the symptoms they were experiencing and what they'd seen, heard and smelled in the building before becoming ill.
The simulation is the second full-scale exercise the university has held, Nieves said. UCO held a similar exercise at East Hall in 2003, he said.
Although Thursday's exercise wasn't held in response to any particular event, Nieves said university officials entered the exercise with the understanding that national attention has been turned toward campus safety.
Nieves said institutions occasionally make changes in response to major emergencies.
Nieves' position, for example, was created in the wake of the 2007 campus shooting at Virginia Tech that left 33 dead, including the shooter, and 23 injured.
But Nieves said universities can't base all their emergency management training on recent incidents. If they focus all their attention on active-shooter training, for example, universities may leave themselves unprepared for other kinds of incidents.
The main objective behind a large-scale, multiagency exercise such as this one is to allow officials to get an idea of how well the university works with the city of Edmond, Nieves said.
The exercise also gave university officials a chance to see how well the university communicates internally, he said.
For the most part, Nieves said, coordination with city officials during Thursday's exercise was seamless, but officials saw a few internal communication issues.
Maj. Bill Brown, a spokesman for the Edmond Fire Department, said full-scale training such as Thursday's exercise is valuable because it shows a better example of how every agency would work in a real-life emergency.
The department's Hazardous Materials Response Team donned chemical suits and inspected West Hall during the simulation. Although the team conducts similar training fairly frequently, he said, that training isn't a substitute for larger-scale scenarios that involve many agencies working together.
“You can't put a price on this type of training,” Brown said.