In emergency management, be ready to ‘roll with the punches’

At TechSec, Dana Farber security director discusses impacts of back-to-back active shooter, big blizzard
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Friday, February 6, 2015

DELRAY BEACH, Fla.—Working in emergency management means “rolling with the punches” and having successful communication plans in place, says the director of security and emergency management for the renowned Dana Farber Cancer Institute in Boston.

Rolling with the punches certainly came into play last month for Ralph Nerette, who was the featured second-day opening speaker at TechSec 2015, held here Feb. 3-4.

In a period of seven days, Nerette was faced with the security fallout from an active shooter situation at a next-door hospital that left a cardiac surgeon and the gunman dead, and then a blizzard bearing down on Boston that would require much advanced planning for his facility.

“His job is incredibly difficult and challenging,” commented Rob Hile, moderator of the session and director of strategic accounts for SureView Systems.

Day-to-day security at the Harvard teaching hospital and nationally known cancer treatment facility is the tip of the iceberg, Hile said. The successful response to unplanned events, that part of the iceberg that lies underneath, is what puts security professionals to the test, he added.

Communication was at the heart of both situations, said Nerette, a “20 under 40” winner last year.  He currently oversees a security staff of 50 and credits that team for its outstanding work and dedication and "making him look good." 

Dana Farber is adjacent to Brigham and Women’s Hospital in the city’s Longwood Medical and Academic Area.  At 11:02 a.m. Jan. 20, a call came into the Boston Police Department about a shooting there. Brigham and Women’s activated its emergency notification system.

“Because we are a tight-knit group” of four hospitals in that area, “we all heard it. We quickly got our command center spooled up,” said Nerette, who was working remotely that day. “Within two minutes the police were there, and we got notification that the suspect was down.”

Still, “at what point is this active shooter situation our situation? It was next door,” Nerette said. He and his team had to decide whether to lock down and, again, how to provide accurate information to employees and the public.

Their decisions were successful. “We were back to normal within 30 minutes,” he said.

That didn’t end the emergency, however. Traffic in the neighborhood came to a standstill because of the police presence. There was mainstream media pressing for information and helicopters flying overhead.

Then, there was the dynamic of social media to deal with. Information about the shooting was online within a few minutes, some of it inaccurate, Nerette said.

“The challenge for us was to how to quickly communicate to our workforce and the general public while competing with social media,” he said. “There was a pervasive need for communications throughout the whole incident.”

Dana-Farber’s communications team manages social media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook; those platforms are not managed through Nerette’s emergency management team. “We feel we have a different audience with our emergency management. Social media is an external thing,” he said, but it’s something he’s taking a look at now.

The Brigham-Women’s shooting turned out to have minimal impact on Dana Farber’s physical security, but it did have an impact on employees there, he said, another issue he had to deal with.

During the investigation of the shooting, Dana Farber employees’ “nerves were frayed.” Hospitals deal with high-charged emotional situations on the part of patients and family members every day, and there’s no telling when one could turn violent.

“It touched a lot of people. What do we have in place to prevent something like that from happening here? I was looking at guards in the lobby and said, ‘Is this who is going to stop that from happening here?’” That’s an issue he constantly considers, he said, and communicates to employees about.

A few days after the shooting came the forecast for a blizzard that would dump a few feet of snow on Boston in a very short period.

“We needed to plan to meet our obligations to the care of our patients,” he said. “Babies are still going to be born and appendices still need to be removed,” even when snow comes down at 3 inches per hour—which at one point it did—and wreaks havoc with transportation and more, he said.

For the blizzard, Nerette put the hospital’s emergency plan in place, including providing extra food and linens not only for patients but also for employees who would be socked in. Brigham and Women’s was at near capacity and asked Nerette to provide 100 beds for its staff. He complied.

Dana Farber has an MOU with the other hospitals in the area, along with informal collaboration with their security staffs. They organize drills together. “Our plans need to be integrated because we are so geographically close. An emergency for one is an emergency for all of us,” he said.

The four hospitals in the neighborhood each have their own command centers but have been talking about a federated identification management system. Many doctors and other staff come and go between the separate facilities. “It’s an incredibly difficult challenge when it comes to ID management, Nerette said.

The hospital also has an excellent working relationship with the BPD, he said.

Along with his active shooter and blizzard challenges is dealing with the more mundane, such as legacy systems. “I have a workforce that has to use those systems” and training them is paramount, he said.

“I’m a big proponent of technology and leveraging technology,” Nerette said, adding that he has been working with a number of manufacturers on beta testing systems.

It’s clear, moderator Hile said, that Nerette is a “bridge builder” with peers at other facilities, with police and with security technology manufacturers and providers. The recent incidents affecting Dana-Farber tested Nerette’s team, but the training and expertise involved by all paid off, Hile said.