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In Case of Emergency

By Selena Fragassi


Handling a Bombshell

While the rest of us were watching the events of the Boston Marathon Bombing unfold on television in April 2013, personnel at nearby Simmons College in the Fenway neighborhood were in the heart of the action. They themselves were racing around to attend to the needs of 50 international Fulbright Scholars that had arrived April 17, just days after the initial bombing on the 15th and right before the manhunt for the two suspects got underway leaving the city in a perpetual lockdown.

“The scholars were coming from such great distances that they were already in the country when the bombing occurred,” says College Chief of Police Sean Collins of the large group of adult women who had taken part in the four-day academic foreign exchange program sponsored by the U.S. State Department. There was no going back or canceling—“they were already en route.”

Instead, Collins went to work like he always does to serve and protect. The school had been closed on April 15th in observance of the local Patriot’s Day holiday, but when Collins got the call at home to inform him of what was going on in the city, he swiftly moved into action. “I immediately got the emergency responding team together and we added additional staff for police and security,” he recalls, assembling extra units for the school at large as well as the scholars who were staying in pre-arranged accommodations five minutes away at the Inn at Longwood Medical Center. “It was quite the thing to divide limited resources and provide police at the hotel site. We definitely stretched what we had and made it work.”

Though the group’s daily lectures, sessions and even meals that were planned on campus were canceled due to the Boston Police Department’s shelter in place order, the college knew it was their duty to keep the women safe and reassured while immobilized at the hotel. “We felt a great responsibility,” says Director of Conference and Special Events Nicole Vanderpol. “Some of the women had come from countries where there was a lot of violence and we were concerned with how they would deal with what was going on,” especially with deserted streets and a National Guard presence that made Boston look a bit too familiar for some. Counselors had already been in place to assist Simmons’ nursing students that had been in medical tents during the marathon, and Vanderpol started tapping into her connections at the Inn at Lockwood to “provide some semblance of order.”

She worked with the hotel to essentially swap venues. “They were already providing sleeping accommodations, and since the other groups that had previously reserved spaces had canceled due to the lockdown, the hotel also had meeting rooms open that accommodated the Fulbright sessions,” says Vanderpol, who also asked the property to provide daily meals. “They were incredibly gracious, and they pulled all their resources together since they weren’t planning on feeding 100 people.” The hotel also pulled in large screen TVs to keep the women entertained until they were able to return to campus and finish out the activities before departing on their original flights on April 21st.

Mary Shapiro, professor of practice in the school of management who worked closely with the scholars, says the nonstop communication between faculty, the school and the visitors was a huge plus and applauds the students who used the opportunity to spend the down time talking and building relationships, so when they came back to school there was a cohesive bonded group. “That allowed us to quickly rebuild the curriculum on the days we lost together,” she says, recalling “they put on a variety show and performed for each other.” Adds Collins, “They were even doing karaoke at one point, and one of my guys who was there started singing with them.”

Vanderpol credits Collins and his crew’s attentiveness and compassion as well as SCERT (Simmons College Emergency Response Team) for successfully handling what could have been a disastrous situation. “The team communicates with each other extremely well and has worked out the process for whatever emergency may arise,” she says. “We are relatively small for a college, so people know each other here—it’s a real community. In these situations you get to see the result of that sense of community in a very positive way.” Collins agrees: “Everyone knew these 50 women now belonged to us and became part of our community, and we were going to take care of them.”

Weathering The Weather

When Mother Nature wants to make a bold appearance, sometimes she comes without warning. That is what the staff of the Thunderbird School of Global Management, affiliated with Arizona State University, found out last September when a rare microburst tore through the middle of campus leaving downed power lines, uprooted trees and extensive damage to both buildings and parked cars.

“We have monsoon season July through September so we expect storms mid-afternoon that go away as quickly as they come, but very rarely do we have a true microburst that comes into a general area and does that much damage in Glendale. It literally came out of nowhere,” says Patti Davidson, general manager of the on-site Thunderbird Executive Inn & Conference Center. The storm hit at 2:47 p.m. on a Saturday afternoon when the 134-room facility was 90% occupied with various Executive Education groups, and the staff was on the weekend shift. “It was amazing how quickly the team rallied together and everyone came in on their day off and took action,” says Davidson noting that the team met hourly during the first 24-hours to come up with a contingency plan that also included delivering flashlights, notecards explaining the situation and bottled water to each guest room. “No one cared about their title. They took a broom and cleaned up, and many of us stayed up overnight to ensure the safety of our guests and to answer any questions.”

Thunderbird has an emergency call system to alert staff that was employed in this situation while text messages were used to keep the greater community updated. The initial phone call was sent to Thunderbird Facility Director Sam Giusa who then got in touch with managers and department heads to see who could get to campus to assess it. Because power lines were down at the intersection where Thunderbird sits, “many had to park a half mile away and walk or take golf carts over,” he recalls, which was a very similar plan of attack for evacuating hotel guests to a nearby Embassy Suites where Davidson had secured room blocks for those wanting to leave campus. “We used truck-mounted diesel cranes and forklifts to move trees out of the way and created a parade of cars to safely get them to the main road,” notes Davidson. “For those that didn’t have cars we also called a private transportation company.”

Some guests opted to stay on campus, faithful that the power would soon be restored. And thanks to Giusa it was just one day later when a 2.5-ton generator arrived with some fortuitous luck. Giusa had made a previous order for the machine just two weeks prior, which left a generator staged in the Glendale area. It was onsite by 9 p.m. that evening and Thunderbird had power again overnight, before most of the area. “You’d watch the news channels and Thunderbird was the only thing lit up around an area of nothing but dark,” he says noting the college was a beacon for the community, too, for those who were overheated or needed water or shelter for the interim.

Davidson and her team kept in constant contact with the Embassy Suites and modified a few services such as dining (ordering pastries to make sure they had breakfast for example) by the time the groups returned to campus Monday. The staff also had to make sure the grounds were safe, covering and coning numerous large pits where trees had been upturned. Thankfully no one was hurt during it all, which left a good impression on the visitors.

“The groups that come to us tend to be from the energy industry and are extremely safety conscious,” says Elena Chavez, director of operations for the Executive Education Department. “It was a concern of ours if we would live up to their standards, but they were very complimentary. The main thing was that they knew what was going on and were offered options, which were all taken care of for them. So it didn’t ruin what they were there to do. The storm was not a minor thing but it was a minor inconvenience because of how it was handled.”

Today, the campus is mostly back to normal. As for an employee’s vehicle that was damaged in the midst of the storm, he says, “We pulled together as family to come up with money to assist them in getting a new car.”

Family is a good word for it, says Davidson. “There was no hesitation or doubt our team would be there to help, with everyone keeping tabs on each other. Constant communication made a good thing come out of bad situation.”

Keeping Sickness At Bay

When the PR office for the University of Maryland, College Park started getting calls from the media, Pat Perfetto knew something was wrong. “They had found out that two buses full of our conference of high school students had taken a detour to the hospital from a planned field trip to downtown D.C. because kids were getting sick.” The year was 2004 and though the campus didn’t know it yet, they were experiencing an outbreak of norovirus.

“Nowadays we hear about outbreaks quite often, and we know how to handle them, but back in 2004 it was quite uncommon. We had never been through it before so we were in learning mode and we responded to it very aggressively,” says Perfetto who was then the director of campus guest services and today is the university’s director of conference and visitor services.

First, Perfetto and his team immediately contacted the client who was already taking charge of the matter on the buses and at the local emergency room. Back on-site the campus fire department and health center personnel had set up a rescue squad trailer as a first line of defense, which acted as a triage for the returning college prep students where they could be evaluated on the spot and immediately taken to the proper medical facilities if it appeared they were sick. “We didn’t want to waste any time but also know there can be a lot of hysteria with students and wanted to make sure to do the proper testing and evaluations,” he said.

While the health crews were handling patients, UMD’s emergency management team was convened and set up a communication plan with the other groups visiting for the summer session. “We wanted to make sure there was transparency and not speculation so we communicated with everyone so they understood what was going on. We verified they weren’t having any health problems and then asked them to stay in their areas while the affected residence halls were under isolation,” recalls Perfetto noting a campus wide e-mail that was sent out with a list of symptoms to look out for and step-by-step instructions for what to do if a person felt ill. “We have a lot of residences that are separate from each other allowing us to isolate the one where this group was.”

Then it was all hands on deck. “We called all the housekeeping staff in for containment and cleaning,” says Perfetto, further noting it is normally quite a large crew since the school has 12,000 beds. “All were briefed and given the proper tools and went to work quickly to sanitize all the spaces the students may have used. When norovirus strikes, it strikes quickly so it’s important to stop the spread as soon as possible.” A 10% Clorox solution was applied to every inch of the residence hall and buses, he says. “If we could reach it, it got treated.” There was also a separate dining area where the potentially infected students could eat away from the majority population.

Thankfully the outbreak, which was linked back to a prior field trip site in Arlington, Virginia, happened in early August when most of the student body was still on break. Out of the 1,000 or so visitors, only 100 were impacted and that was from an initial infected group of about 400 people. “Not only was it contained to one group but within the group too,” says Perfetto, estimating the complete impact to be about two to three days, “but very busy days.”

In the face of a crisis, Perfetto considers the teamwork a success in stopping the spread and getting back to business as usual. There were a few takeaways the team gleaned and has used in the 11 years since. “One of which was having the proper protocols in place and distributing information correctly so everyone is on the same page,” he says. That meant alerting staff how to direct any media inquiries to the university’s public information officer for a unified statement as well as distributing information packets to be filled out before any youth arrived on campus. They include medical release forms, emergency contact forms and a page for referral information for Department of Mental Health and Hygiene. “We now share this up front with the group planners so in the event something like this happens again they have awareness of protocols, requirements and what everyone’s responsibilities are—though hopefully it won’t happen again.” So far, so good.

Get Connected

Simmons College
Boston, MA
(617) 521.2288

Thunderbird Executive Inn & Conference Center
Glendale, AZ
(602) 978.7987

University of Maryland, College Park
College Park, MD
(301) 314.7884 
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