A worst-case scenario that gets worse

November 21, 2003

Is your university incident team ready to face fatalities? Olga Wojtas reports from a real-time reconstruction

When staff arrive at 9.30am, they get a message from the convener of the university incident team. A party of students has reportedly run into problems in Egypt. The convener proposes a brief meeting, adding that, if the incident comes to little, the team could discuss the report of a recent alleged rape attempt in a hall of residence.

One of the team has already been waylaid by a student with a text message from a friend on an archaeology trip: "Been in accident egypt im ok but scotties really bad scarey tell uni and dad emma." Meanwhile, an archaeology department secretary contacts another team member to say a student taking part in a dig in Egypt has left a message on the answer machine. The student said there had been a crash and one student was dead.

He left a number to call, but the person answering spoke no English. It sounded as if it might be a hospital.

The scenario is part of an intensive two-day course that aims to test university incident teams' readiness to cope with student fatalities. It is run by the training and consultancy company Boldbrackenridge, whose director, Sharon McNeish, is the former head of Glasgow University's student and staff support division. She is supported by Mike Brown, Glasgow's former director of publicity services. Both have been at the sharp end of dealing with student fatalities. Brown says: "Lots of people have a folder in their room, which has gone through several senate committees, on what to do if there is a fatality. What we're doing is taking that document off the shelf and dramatising it."

It is impossible to be prescriptive because any crisis is by its nature unexpected, McNeish says. "What we want to produce are people who don't follow a checklist because that will not be the right checklist that day," she says. "We feel there is a need to be tried by exposure, but in the comfort and safety of a training environment."

The participants on the course, from universities and Jarvis Accommodation Services, may question how comfortable the experience is. They are beginning to calculate what they need: language expertise, time zone information, atlases, overseas flights, a helpline. McNeish adds to the list: "Does everybody know everybody else's mobile number? Can you get access to the incident room at 3am? Does it have phone lines, computers, laptops? A dry whiteboard?"

"I thought you were going to say dry white wine," sighs one overwhelmed participant.

The real-time scenario is full of typical pressures and pitfalls. Different team members have been given garbled and contradictory fragments of information. The students' association has produced a list of the students on the archaeology club's Luxor expedition, but this does not include the names of any of the students the teams believe are involved. They try to find out whether the students belong to the sub-aqua club, which is also visiting Egypt. Nobody spots that the archaeology club list is for 2002.

The 2003 list is eventually produced. An academic in Luxor confirms that two men admitted to hospital after the accident have died. They are Scott Grant and Farouq Hosni. According to the list, a Scott Grant and a Grant Scott are on the trip. Are they the same person? If not, which one is dead?

The incident teams are beginning to look fraught. They have ignored the report on the attempted rape, but it emerges that the two students involved in that incident are on the Egypt trip. It is unclear whether the woman is still with the party. Her father has arrived at campus, furious that the university let her travel. The vice-chancellor wants a briefing in half an hour. Local radio is on to the story and needs information for its 11am bulletin. But the teams are not yet sure of the facts. One participant says: "We'll miss their bulletin, but that's their problem, not ours." Not so, says Brown, warning of the incalculable damage of negative headlines.

"It's vital you know how the media operate. You may not always have a press officer with you," he says. Before they feel remotely on top of the information, the teams are led off to be interviewed by broadcast journalist Paddy Christie, while a photographer sets off flash guns in their faces. One interviewee says 12 students were on the trip, but they have reports of only "about five". "Where are the other seven?" Christie barks. "Are they injured? Are they just wandering about?"

"I don't know," the flustered spokesperson says. Brown tells the team not to get rattled by hostile interviewers. Speak not to them but to the reasonable person at home, he says, and if you don't know the facts, say what you feel and what you are trying to do.

After the interview, they assemble for a debriefing. "I'm shattered," one confides. They all relax, but actor Stewart Ennis arrives to play Scott Grant's father, bewildered and distraught. The participant chosen to be the university's representative promises to arrange a flight as soon as possible. Ennis then plays the role of the blustering father of an injured student, demanding information and insisting on being flown out immediately. The participant does not check his identity carefully and discovers too late that he is Emma's estranged stepfather. And there is a power struggle between another participant and Ennis, this time playing a know-it-all parent who claims to have powerful connections in Egypt.

McNeish's advice is to bring awkward relatives or senior academics into the incident team and keep them busy - that minimises the damage they might otherwise do.

By now, the participants are exhausted. McNeish says institutions must realise the pressure on their staff. People need praise and, if necessary, access to counselling. "This is not looking at a spreadsheet and knocking off a number. You're looking into the eyes of a parent, standing by the graveside, giving a reading at the funeral. Institutions need to wake up and recognise that."

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