Safety and security are on all our minds as a result of the Sandy Hook disaster and the long, sad history of violent events that have preceded it over the years. At UNM-Taos, despite the fact that we have an almost perfect track record (one instance of robbery and one incident of harassment since 2008) in the annual federal crime reporting data which tracks murder, rape, robbery, aggravated assault, burglary, motor vehicle theft, liquor law violations, drug abuse violations, weapon violations, harassment and vandalism, the UNM-Taos administration agreed that, with an enrollment growing from three hundred to an estimated 1,700 this semester, it was time to take a long hard look at our policies and make sure we were doing everything we could to ensure the safety of students, staff, faculty and visitors to our college.
Presented with a system that had worked in the past but was rapidly being overwhelmed by the sheer number of new buildings and the size of our student body, our Safety and Security Taskforce headed up by Rudy Baca and his staff put together an emergency phone protocol, Taos News and UNM text alert systems and a disaster management plan. When Ken Koch, Taos’ new chief of police, was hired in October, he was invited down to Klauer Campus for a site visit. More recently he has met with the Taskforce, given brief talks at both new student and faculty orientations and sat down in an interview to talk about campus security. He told new students that he had a 25 year career in law enforcement along with serving for five years in the military.
“I want to congratulate Dr. O’Neill and her staff,” he said, “because they reached out to me as soon as I got to town and said, we want to start to partner with town and county law enforcement to ensure the safety and security of our students and faculty, and the security of the environment in which they come to learn.”
At the start of the interview Koch said, “I advise you not to train to the last disaster at the expense of everything else,” indicating that the next disaster is not going to be an active shooter on campus. “Don’t rule out any natural disaster. After 25 years in Flagstaff, Arizona, not known for natural disasters, and in a span of two years before my retirement, we had two blizzards that caused roof collapses, tornadoes, a forest fire that threatened an entire neighborhood, and resulting flooding in the burn area when the monsoons hit. I’d say you’re probably safe from tsunamis here in Taos County, but don’t rule out anything else.”
Instead, Chief Koch recommended an all-hazards response plan. “Everyone has a plan sitting on a shelf somewhere, but when something happens it might take an hour and a half to find it. What you need is a simple plan that can be employed in any situation, and it has to be tested and it has to be trained for. It’s not just training for someone coming into a classroom with a gun, it’s planning a strategy for the semi coming out of the canyon that crashes and causes a hazmat spill that requires an evacuation or shelter-in-place based on the decision of the fire department.
“We need to educate you to respond and save your life and mitigate the loss of life through effective decision making under stressful environments that you don’t normally operate under. It’s just that simple. In other words, don’t worry about what the nature of the threat is, but rather what you hope to achieve: an effective evacuation of your campus buildings to an effective distance. If you train from the mindset of all hazards, it doesn’t matter if it’s the cloud radius of a chlorine spill on Paseo del Sur or a live shooter. The question is, how do I evacuate these buildings to a safe distance? What are the procedures I need to have in place to effectively achieve this objective? Remember, there is going to be a lag time before first responders can get there, so you have to take some responsibility for your own welfare.
“Take threats seriously. Always err on the side of caution. If your inner voice is telling you this isn’t going to end well, you’re probably right. Call 911. I would much rather have to come to the scene and find out it was far less violent than initially reported, than not get that call and respond without any time to intercede or make a difference. Every law enforcement officer feels this way. It frustrates me when someone says well, I didn’t want to bother you. That’s why law enforcement exists: to serve your needs and meet your expectations.”
Koch summarized, “Don’t wait until the disaster happens to make it a priority. Train to an all-hazards response and make it as simple as you can for the purpose of minimizing loss of life and ensuring an effective and efficient response of resources. That’s the best you can do.”