On January 19, 2000, I experienced the most difficult and challenging experience I hope to ever endure in my Student Affairs career. On that morning, three freshmen students died in a tragic fire in Boland Hall, the first-year residence hall at Seton Hall University in South Orange, New Jersey. More than 50 additional students were treated for injuries related to the fire that broke out at approximately 4:30 a.m. in a third-floor lounge. In the days and weeks following the fire, I experienced a wide range of emotions as my department, Housing and Residence Life, did its part to help the students affected by the fire return to campus and their academic schoolwork, and go on with their lives. In writing this article, I hope that sharing my experience will help others handle crisis situations.
The Initial Response – Day 1
Seton Hall’s Crisis Manual outlines the chain of command in terms of responding to a crisis and assigns responsibilities to University officials. While the writers’ of this manual could not have anticipated the magnitude of this particular crisis; the steps to be followed were clear and useful. The Essex County Office of Emergency Management was onsite almost immediately after the fire was extinguished, and they assisted us in dealing with local and state authorities. A crisis team, consisting of the police, the prosecutor’s office, the fire department, and University and town officials, was formed to manage the crisis.
Key to avoiding chaos was the establishment of an internal command center, where all information was gathered, shared and prepared for external dissemination by the crisis team. The command center was a large space separate from the housing department and other Student Affairs offices. Access to communication equipment and technology was critical to the management of the crisis. Multiple phone lines and computer ports were needed, all in a location that was secure and relatively central on campus.
The delineation of duties was the next most immediate aspect of dealing with the aftermath of the fire. Seton Hall’s president was clear that our students’ needs must come first and everyone took that charge to heart. Priests were assigned and dispatched to every hospital to talk to students and families within hours of the fire. Every division of the University was involved in the management of this crisis in some way. (For purposes of this article, I will focus on aspects that were managed by the Department of Housing and Residence Life and departments within the Division of Student Affairs.)
Housing and Residence Life Responsibilities – Day One
The Department of Housing and Residence Life was first charged with gathering rosters, emergency contact information, guest passes and incident report information from in-hall staff. I learned that keeping extra copies, and up-to-date copies, of this information is very important. Having the ability to run occupancy reports and rosters immediately was also helpful. As students were accounted for, we assisted in connecting them to counselors and/or emergency personnel in a temporary triage area. It was clear to me after our first campus-wide debriefing (just hours after the fire) that managing this crisis was going to be a long, tiring process. I found it was important to pull my staff together to give them updates and to plan for how we would rotate coverage of the office.
Communication was the most critical component to managing the crisis. The housing department had little or no role in dealing with the media – other than to provide information to the Department of Public Relations and Marketing. The dean’s office held regular “town meeting” style updates for students and also began regularly updating the University Web page regarding student-related information. The dean’s office also gave students access to telephones in the University Center to make outgoing calls. The housing department posted information in all residence halls, and resident assistants had meetings throughout the first several days to get accurate information from their hall directors.
Students and parents had many questions, and one challenge was expressing to my staff the importance of resisting the temptation to speculate for people about what might happen, when things might happen or how things might happen. I learned that much of the information we needed was originating with local and state authorities, and we were not always privy to the facts. Information changed as investigations unfolded and the scope of the crisis became evident to all that were working to help the students.
Boland Hall closes and long-term plans take shape.
As the first day unfolded, we learned about the extent of the damage to property, and the extent of emotional impact on the students. University officials were restricted from entering Boland Hall, and Boland Hall residents were encouraged to go home as that hall completely closed. We also encouraged other resident students to go home, but we did keep desks open for those who could not get away. We found temporary housing for Boland residents who could not get home that first night, housing them with upper-class students, and we also arranged for cots to be set up in our recreation center. Surprisingly, few Boland residents needed those accommodations. A decision was made relatively quickly to re-open the hall on Monday January 24. Based on the damage to the floor where the fire occurred we knew we needed housing for the rest of the spring semester for at least 75 students. Our focus shifted from immediate crisis response to planning for the relocation of students. Again, the importance of accurate rosters, contact information and a plan for how to quickly reach the students was critical. We organized phone banks, and resident assistants and student volunteers helped make calls to tell residents about relocation plans. We received a great deal of help from the Division of University Affairs, a group of Seton Hall law students and volunteers from many other departments on campus.
At Seton Hall, the housing department does not triple students, nor do we do “overflow” housing off-campus in the fall, so both options were new to us and required quick exploration. As we developed those leads, we consolidated students in upper-class halls and reassigned freshman to those spaces. In five days, we managed to reassign all students who lived on the floor where the fire occurred. We also learned that two floors above the fire would not be ready to open for a minimum of two weeks; therefore creating the need to find temporary housing for nearly 150 more students.
Boland Opens, January 24, 2000
Counseling and emotional support for the students was the University’s first priority when Boland Hall reopened. Four members of The Career Center staff served as “case mangers” for the students who lived on the floor were the fire occurred. Each student was assigned to a case manager who worked with the student to handle all questions and concerns. Having four case managers as liaisons to the housing department (and to other departments) made our jobs much easier. The Counseling Services staff held debriefing sessions for housing staff and set up a 24-hour command center to coordinate the more than 75 counseling volunteers from other universities, state agencies and local hospitals that were available to the students. Priests-in-residence spoke with students’ daily, and the Priest Community and Division of University Affairs took the lead in planning the Service of Remembrance and Hope.
By January 24, procedures were developed to handle property loss claims. The housing department was not intimately involved in formation of these plans, but played a role communicating claims information to students. In the days and weeks after Boland Hall opened, we collected claims forms and created a database for University Counsel to track claims. Students who lived on the floor affected by the fire were eligible for immediate financial assistance through the Independent Colleges and Universities of New Jersey (ICUNJ) fund. Also, all students were issued a credit for the time they were displaced from Boland Hall.
The housing department received help from local colleges and universities almost immediately. My colleagues came from all over New Jersey to answer phones, to make copies, to help find accommodations for students, and to lend emotional support. Housing and residence life volunteers were also instrumental in helping us re-open the halls five days after the fire. It was important to have volunteer coordinators, and we were lucky to have colleagues close by who knew the University well, and who took the lead coordinating volunteer efforts.
As I reflect on all that was done to manage the crisis, there are several things I suggest housing staff consider and incorporate into a crisis management plan.
1. Put the needs of the students first.
Basic needs for shelter, food and emotional support are critical. Develop plans to address those needs before a crisis happens.
2. Communication is a key.
Almost as important as those basic needs is the need to know what is happening, what will happen and where to get help. Develop communication plans, and plan to spend time getting information to all members of the community, will help you manage a crisis.
3. Take your time.
There is a tendency to work fast in a crisis, and while quick response is important (and was important to us in the first few hours), it is equally important not to rush in a crisis. Taking some extra time to gather information or to formulate a plan is time well spent.
4. Accept help as soon as possible. Get staff rested and work in shifts.
I was amazed at the number of e-mail messages, voice mail messages, notes, cards, etc.; I received from friends and colleagues in housing and residence life across the country. As I slowed down to reflect and plan, I realized that I needed help. At first, I was concerned that volunteers from outside Seton Hall might get in the way, but I quickly learned that these well-trained and experienced professionals knew when to jump in. As volunteers came to help, I was able to encourage my staff get some rest and down time.
5. Recognize your limitations.
You have no control over local and state authorities, and the sooner you recognize that you need to work with them the better you will be able to manage a crisis. This does not mean you cannot make suggestions, or plead for some information or action, but I found it best not to spend too much time doing so. Rather I focused on items directly within my sphere of control.
6. Expect the unexpected.
The best crisis manual in the field will not anticipate every possible scenario or solution to every problem. Use a crisis plan to help guide your work, and to ensure you don’t forget to cover your bases. Trust that training and collective skills (with that good plan) will help you navigate the crisis. Don’t let the things that blindside you rattle you. It is part of what happens, and I believe housing and residence life professionals are probably some of the best-trained people at handling the unexpected. Take some comfort in that.
In the six months since the fire I have spent a considerable amount of time on work related to the fire. There was a significant amount of follow up with students and families as the healing process occurred. Seton Hall’s president made a bold announcement (soon after the fire) that all of our residence halls will have a fire suppression sprinkler system installed by the time school started in fall 2000. This meant working with contractors to have access to rooms the last two months of the Spring semester, rescheduling summer conference programs and working with contractors to accommodate their needs throughout our summer school housing and orientation programs. Other facility needs are being addressed, such as upgrades to our alarm system, and renovations to the floor damaged by the fire. Policy revisions were made, training and education has been enhanced and we will continue to evaluate and improve all aspects of safety on campus.
Any tragedy causes us to reflect, learn and improve on all aspects of our work. I am confident that my colleagues in housing and residence life have spent much time reflecting on what happened at Seton Hall University. Hopefully we’ll all make improvements to our facilities, our policies, our training, and our student education and student orientation such that a tragedy of this nature will never happen again.
Submitted by Craig D. Allen, Director of Housing and Residence Life, Seton Hall University