It is something that Residence Life staff everywhere hope never to have to deal with, yet the threat is real. RA training touches upon it barely, if at all. What I talk about is a critical incident, not somewhere else or even off-campus, but right in the residence halls. A tragedy in our homes.

Let me first explain where I am coming from. I am not writing this article from a theoretical standpoint, or a “what-if” angle. In my experience in Residence life, both as an RA and a professional, I have been a part of some scary moments. Moments that don’t allow a person to think, but simply to react.

As an RA, I was on-call when a student disappeared without a trace. A few days later, right after the halls closed for break, I was in the office when the call came in that the student’s body was found in the river. I have walked onto the floor to see my resident lying on the floor, without a pulse or breathing, and frantically attempted CPR while the paramedics raced to the scene. I have seen a domestic assault occur outside my window. All of these occurrences happened while I was an RA, but none of these prepared me for what I saw in my first few months as a professional. A fire broke out in my building, and another director and I tried unsuccessfully to contain it. The damage was massive, many students without a home, and a few of us ended up in the hospital. Another time while I was on-call, a student was found dead in his room after a lifetime battle with an illness.

I am sure that many professionals have a great many more tales to tell, but I do not tell of these moments to brag. These were eye-opening experiences for me, and made me really think about what needs to happen in a crisis situation. There is so much confusion and disarray in such an incident, whether it be a large scale incident as a fire, or a “quiet” suicide attempt.

Critical response is not something that can be trained and drilled. It is not the same as making sure RAs meet their programming requirements, or hold their annual community builders. It is instinctual, and often the cream rises to the top in such occurrences. However, there are certain things that can be done to help out in the unfortunate case of a campus tragedy. Here are some suggestions as how to make your staff a bit more “crisis-ready”:

– Make sure that all of the RAs have a pre-set meeting point in the case
of a building evacuation. (ie: front door, a certain tree, department
office)
– For instances such as fire drills, make sure that each RA be assigned
to a particular exit, stairwell, etc in order to ensure a thorough and
organized evacuation. The RA staff should know their “posts” beforehand.
(fire drills too!)
– The RA staff should each possess a phone chain; a list of who needs to
be called in the event of an emergency.
– There should be a skeleton plan on where students who may have lost
their housing are to be placed temporarily, if only for the duration of
the crisis.
– RAs should be aware of the proper references that they may have to make (to departments, campus services, media, etc) and what may be available to the people on the scene (food, shelter, counseling services, crisis response team, etc)
– Make sure that residents are safe and away from the scene, yet be aware of the whereabouts of anyone who may be needed for information or assistance.
– Try to keep a cool and calm front, as panic and anxiety are very
contagious.

There is so much that can be done, and this starting list can and should be expanded upon greatly. Make sure that your department and your staff know what needs to happen in the event of a critical incident. There is always time afterwards for reflection and assessment, but in the heat of the moment, there is very little time to think.

Talk to your staffs about this possibility, and see what you can come up
with. Best of luck, and may you never have to use it.
Thank you.

Joshua Walker
Area Director
Nazareth College of Rochester

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