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Doug Mell: Thanks for joining us for another edition of About Stout. The format of this show will be a little different because of its subject the April 5 tragedy that claimed the lives of three UW-Stout students in an early morning apartment fire. The victims were April Englund, a senior from West St. Paul; Amanda Rief, a sophomore from Chaska, Minn.; and Scott Hams, a senior from Hayward. Joining the chancellor and me today are two UW-Stout administrators who were, and still are, deeply involved in our response to that fire. From taking care of the families of the victims, to ensuring the needs of the students, faculty, and staff affected by the fire are met. And coordinating our responses to that fire are Joan Thomas, our dean of students. Welcome Joan. And Jim Uhlir, our executive director of health and safety. Welcome Jim. We’ll start just generally talking about the tragedy and the effects on campus. Chancellor, this event obviously affected everyone on campus.
Chancellor Sorensen: It did.
Mell: We’ve seen that – on a personal level, as chancellor, how has it affected you?
Sorensen: Well, on a couple levels. One is I’m also a parent of three daughters who are out of school now, but went to school, so you personalize this in part. What would happen if I would have gotten that telephone call? And the other is, you’re the head of a school of about 8,500 students, and you want to make sure they have a safe community, and you want to make sure that those parents don’t get that call, and they did. So it had a very profound, shocking effect on campus, a very sobering impact on campus, and yet it brought the campus together in a very profound, effective way.
Mell: You obviously, you got the first call, the fire chief called you.
Sorensen: Yes I did.
Mell: And then you started making some calls. What was that moment like?
Sorensen: It was pretty shocking. It was like 6:30, 6:45 in the morning, and he said, “You had a fire on your campus and three young people are dead.” I thought, first of all, a residence hall, and this may get very, very bad. Then I got up, called the team. We met about 8:15, I think, something like that, and we were, by 8:30, 8:45 I think we were in front of the issue very effectively. And we stayed in front of the issue the entire weekend, thanks to Joan, Jim, a lot of other people.
Mell: Joan, I’d like to talk a little bit about – obviously as dean of students, your office has the responsibility of dealing, not only with all the students on campus, but with the families of students who died in the fire. Would you tell me a little bit what that was like and kind of what steps you had to go through immediately right after the fire?
Joan Thomas: Well, I view my role as one to provide assistance and support to the people most affected by this incident, starting with the families, as you mentioned. On Saturday, I did make contact with the families – of course, we always wait until they’ve been notified by the officials, the coroner.
Mell: That’s usually handled by what? The medical examiner?
Thomas: Right, and then goes to the local law enforcement, and usually I know in one instance, it was the chaplain and then a law enforcement person that notifies the family. So, we give a little bit of time there while we’re getting the response together, and then contacted all the families that day, Saturday, probably early afternoon, by telephone, spoke with all of them. Very difficult time, tough phone calls to make, but really important phone calls. My experience has been that the families very much want to hear from the institution. A lot of times they’re looking for some more information that maybe they haven’t been provided. They have questions regarding the incident. What happens next? And surprisingly, in all their shock and grief, they’re usually very concerned about the roommates and the friends of their student, and so we try to offer support, let them know that we’re there as a campus, and certainly as an administration, and certainly my office, to support their needs, not only in the next few days or the next few weeks, but even down the road. We try to maintain contact with those families.
Mell: Jim, in your position you have a number of roles – health, safety – you have the health functions on campus. You also have the police functions on campus. What, basically, was your role that day?
Jim Uhlir: Well, we were notified immediately after the chancellor, and we first wanted to bring the team together, and that was already in progress because of the chancellor wanting to react quickly and really assess what needed to be done, and our role is first to get the proper team together, and we really have two teams of staff that handle things like this. The first is the critical incident response team. That basically is a small unit, but every department on the team or unit has a life safety mission. And by life safety, I don’t mean just police or risk management, but folks like Joan who is our student services coordinator. Under Joan, the counseling center, they’re part of the essential wellness function that you need during critical incidents. We also have a larger group called the COOP team, and COOP stands for “Continuity of Operations” – that’s an acronym. The COOP team is a little bit larger. Really, critical incidents, that’s a subset of the larger COOP team, but COOP brings in, in the time of disaster, your business functions – purchasing, finance department. You know, when you run out of resources and you’re having to react, you need to buy stuff and move equipment and so forth, and this was a critical incident, the tragedy. We did not call our business office, those folks. But the first step was really to, again, to get the team together, the critical incident folks.
Mell: And as the chancellor said, I think we were together in an hour after that first call.
Sorensen: Just about an hour.
Mell: Just about an hour, which is good on Saturday when people are coming from their homes.
Uhlir: Yeah, and you have to assess the situation. There’s still a lot we didn’t know. We have to get facts, communicate those facts appropriately, because sometimes you have rumors, you know, things can get out of hand. And so, the official communications, your role, is always, on both teams, but critical incidents especially, and once you have kind of the facts, and they’re unfolding, but you start to develop a plan. OK, what are the needs of the community? What are the needs of the folks closest to the incident, as Joan was talking about, with families? And you just formally go around the table to make sure everybody is considered with their service, their piece of student services, and make sure we’re reacting in a cohesive manner.
Mell: I mean, obviously, we plan for this. We’ve had exercises, we’ve had training. I’ve only been here a year and a half and I’ve probably been through two or three, maybe four already, but every incident is different.
Sorensen: It clearly is. A lot of credit to Jim, he’s rather new on campus and he’s gone through other critical incidences at other schools obviously, but the control that he took in the room, so he did in a very systematic way assess what we had to do and what the next steps were. We made judgments, we made calls in that first hour and a half after this was reported.
Mell: From a personal standpoint, I think one of the key things is our cohesiveness; our first meeting we had the fire chief and a high-ranking member of the police department.
Sorensen: That was critical.
Mell: As far as I’m concerned, that made a lot of difference as far as making sure that the right hand knew what the left hand was doing.
Sorensen: And you practiced the crisis situations, and it’s always the city involves the county and us, and in spite of the tragedy, it demonstrated that our crisis team worked very, very well together. As I said before, we got ahead of the curve. Communications were very good. A lot of comments about that after the whole thing was over, so it was a real test case that turned out to work.
Thomas: As you know, Jim, we had just had sort of an exercise with that group, and some of the comments that we did receive from the city were that we all were familiar with who was sitting around the table. We already had worked together, we already had gone through sort of a trial run with this, and I think that that was very beneficial to us.
Mell: Yeah. As far as lessons, we can talk a little later, I guess, about lessons learned. One of the things I’d like to talk about, you mentioned having counseling at the table, and I think it was pretty clear from the first hours concerned obviously had to be with, our first concern had to be with the families of the victims, and you went through a little bit what you did as far as taking care of, and we can talk about the ceremonies we had later, but our second concern had to be with the survivors, had to be with their close friends, and the entire student population, and our faculty senate. Talk a little bit about what that was like, in making sure that we had the resources available to do that.
Thomas: Well, before I even came to campus, I had already called John Achter that morning, and let him know --.
Mell: He’s head of our counseling center.
Thomas: He’s the director of our counseling center, and let him know that we had a campus tragedy, and actually asked him to be at the meeting, and he was there. He pulled his office staff together very quickly. Again, most people were in the community that day. And then we set up a site in Price Commons, and, again, that came together very quickly. One of the things that we learned from that, and I’m not so certain that it was a lesson learned, but when we did decide to hold a press conference and give this notification, we saw the people that came to that were the students who were the roommates and the close friends, which in many ways was very helpful to us, because we were then able to identify who those people were. And while we had some idea, just having them all be present let us know who they were and what the connections were. And while we did see some outward demonstration of their grief and their shock, it was OK. And then the counseling center actually sent some counselors up then to the press conference, and then put their action in place and then made deliberate outreach to the individuals that we now knew were the closest friends and the roommates. And as the weeks have unfolded, and what you often see initially is they need each other and they sort of rely on each other for comfort and to grieve with each other, and now, two weeks down the road, we’re seeing exactly what we anticipated in terms of the real impact that that event has had on their lives. You know, in the first week they’re going to funerals and visitations.
Mell: It’s busy.
Thomas: It’s busy, and they’re together, and there was an agenda, but now we’re really seeing the effects of that. How do you pick up your life again and get back into the classroom and become focused?
Mell: Especially as you get down to crunch time.
Thomas: And it’s finals’ week. So our counseling center is playing a very critical role at this juncture right now, helping students to complete the end of this semester, providing the counseling and support services that they need.
Mell: Jim, you obviously came to us from another institution. Can you talk a little bit about what, I guess, did anything surprise you since those first couple days go here, things that you didn’t expect, or things that just went as you’ve seen on other campuses, because obviously you’ve dealt with tragedies, maybe not identical, but similar?
Uhlir: Yeah, every one is different. And so, that first step that I mentioned, as far as assessing, you know, the facts of the situation, that’s always critical, but in large scale disasters, the community is so important. The community is reacting, but they always need outside help. Here, we had an event that was traumatic, affected students, faculty and staff, and we had good response. The second step after assessment is always response. What I really enjoyed seeing was the closeness of our Stout community to the city and the surrounding community. It made it very easy to keep track of those unmet needs that always pop up during an incident. We had some with the students who were in the adjacent housing unit that were displaced. Even though their unit was unharmed by the fire, the investigation scene had to be protected, so they had to be moved elsewhere, and the Red Cross was on the spot, reacting and I think I got the call even making me aware of that halfway through our day, and so it was handled and then we kind of took the handoff from the Red Cross and were able to lodge and feed for the short term, the students who needed that. But I was proud to be part of the community because the crises like this, they’re all different, but it was heart-warming. It’s a tragedy; it’s a phone call you never want to get.
Mell: Or have to make.
Uhlir: Once you get past the initial shock that the chancellor’s talking about – because we do train for this – you respond, and this community responded very well, and it was heart-warming to see. There’s a lot of good that goes forth, and you always have lessons learned. We’re a learning campus.
Mell: That’s what we’re supposed to do here.
Uhlir: You can turn, and I think this is comforting to the families, that they know, you know, the community is a learning community and good can come from this.
Mell: One of the things you did that week and a few days after, was you wrote a letter that was published in the newspapers around here thanking the response, not only on campus, not only citing that, but just the cooperation that we got from the city, the fire department, the Red Cross, others. Do you want to talk a little bit about…?
Sorensen: Well, I was just very impressed with the way, as Jim said, how everyone stepped up to do their part. How we’ve had a very good alliance with the city and the fire department and police department and Red Cross, and that’s a real lesson learned, I think, that you maintain those relationships in times of a non-crisis, so when this happens, people step up very quickly, and they did. And they were all shocked by this. They all had the same shock that we felt. They felt the hurt and the pain, and I think that was part of the emotion that brought everyone together and could function well as a team.
Mell: How long does it take for a campus like this, do you think, to go through our grieving process and start getting things back on an even keel?
Thomas: Well, I think we’re in the healing phase right now and, you know, we had these events, I think, that helped us to define that. We had the vigil initially, Monday night. That whole week lots of students, some faculty, administrators, were attending the funerals and visitations, and then the SSA sponsored a sort of celebration of life event, which I think was sort of a strong signal that we need to move on, that we need to start to heal. I think that this will take a long time. We still have students and faculty who are adjusting to some of the other student deaths that we’ve had on our campus, and in the last 12 months we’ve had eight students, which is a lot for a campus our size. So, it’ll take some time. I think even next fall we’ll still be sort of dealing with this as a campus, but I do feel that we’ve moved to sort of the healing part of this.
Mell: You had a chance during the celebration of life to talk to the three families…
Sorensen: I did, yes.
Mell: …and met with them privately. How was that?
Sorensen: Well, they were, again, very strong people. You’d see the pain of this tragedy, yet they’re willing to talk to me about it, and you never know what words comfort, and I really don’t know what words comfort. I just gave my deep condolences on behalf of my family and my wife and myself and the campus, and they were, I think, appreciative of the fact that we did that and that I did that, and it helped a little bit perhaps, and I’m very pleased with that. It’s just difficult to meet face-to-face families that lost a loved one like that – very difficult, and Joan really had to face it putting out those initial telephone calls, but essential to do that. It’s part of the healing process.
Thomas: Yeah, absolutely.
Mell: The chancellor talked about before, the coordination with the city, both the police department and the fire department. Do you want to elaborate a little bit about how we did have to work with – I mean because the incident, the fire, occurred off campus, so it wasn’t on our property; we weren’t in charge of the investigation of the cause, which has now come out, and some of the other things, so do you want to talk a little bit about…?
Uhlir: Yeah. Because it was off campus, we were largely in an assistance role as far as police presence, and we do work very closely with Menomonie Police Department and Dunn County Sheriff’s Office. Our county has a joint 911 center, which is nice. It streamlines our response, and we participate in that because our dispatch is connected with that system, and so we’re used to talking to them, but as far as taking the time out of your day to physically train – a lot of places don’t meet that litmus test – and it’s usually very important in disaster response, but also critical incident response, and so we were fortunate. In the fall we trained, as you mentioned, with a NIMS, and NIMS, not to throw out too many acronyms, but it’s important. It’s the National Incident Management System, and by system, that means it’s a framework, and so that if you have disaster the feds might be involved. Your state troopers may be, or your state emergency management, and the local law enforcement and local fire. And so we had them right on campus and we were fortunate to be able to host that. We invited some neighboring sister institutions as well. But they enjoyed having the training. Also, seeing how well we did work with our city, and you’re just thankful that you have that during a time of crisis. I was very thankful for it. We’re still going to apply those lessons learned, and work together on fire safety. It doesn’t matter that it was really off campus. I’m going to offer my services to try to do everything we can, to make folks safe wherever they are. The city helps them on campus; we try to help them off, and it’s just a partnership.
Mell: And I think from what I viewed, the city really appreciated, both the fire department and the police department, really appreciated, I mean we have some resources they don’t have. They don’t, for example, have a big communications department. So we were able to offer assistance in that, and I think they truly appreciated that. One of the other things I guess that I was impressed with was in the days after, the way students on this campus really stepped up in a number of ways. First of all, going to the funerals and participating in that. Signing the memory wall. We had an electronic memory wall. All three of the victims had guest books, and there was a tremendous outpouring of that, so in a sense, I think we just talk about that a little bit; it is a tragedy, but it also affords the opportunity for a campus to grow closer. That’s one of my observations.
Thomas: Yeah, I think we really saw that, and not just from the students’ closest friends, but one of the first phone calls I had that week was a group of students wanting to do something in memory of those students, wanted to raise money – they’re selling wrist bands now. How can we contribute? How can we keep their memories alive? And while it’s part of their healing, it’s also acknowledging these students as members of our community who were lost in a tragic event. And so we saw that; we saw memory walls; we saw a nice video put together, so lots of demonstrations of caring and concern, and not just by our students, but our faculty. Faculty, I think, went to each and every visitation and/or funeral, so we really are a community that does pull together, I think, in a very caring and positive way, and there is positive things to something like this, and I think we’ve really seen that.
Sorensen: I think too that I received so many telephone calls from people away from campus – other campuses.
Mell: The governor, for example.
Sorensen: The governor called and talked to me. I received calls from other universities, other schools.
Thomas: All over the country.
Sorensen: It shows how higher ed. is a unique community nationwide. Our fabric is pretty well bound together, and that’s also interesting and very comforting.
Thomas: I got a few letters from other campuses, very nice.
Mell: I had e-mails that morning from my colleagues saying if you need any help, you know…
Thomas: Right, offering to help.
Mell: Offering to help to get things under control, whatever, and a lot of times, just bringing other people in is harder because, you know, I mean, stuff’s already in progress.
Sorensen: I want to mention, too, Joan talked about the students reacting in a very profound way, but also we had that hate group come on campus, and they responded, I thought, again, as real mature young people, to confront that hate group. Not to fight with them, but rather to say, “Hey, we lost three people here, and we don’t like what you’re saying.” And that was a very powerful statement, I think, and I got comments from that around the state, too.
Mell: That made your life interesting for a while didn’t it.
Uhlir: Yeah, that was another incident and…
Mell: In the middle of the week.
Uhlir: …that happens. Everyone is different. You have unintended consequences sometimes with your actions, but of course, this was something completely external, you know, outsiders thinking they’re going to make a political statement or, I guess it was political, on the state of Wisconsin’s turf, on Stout’s turf, and we respect their rights, and when we did get notified by them, we again got our team together and talked with the city because that’s something you’ve got to communicate and have a good team together with. And we, again, had a unified command. This is something that the training really strengthens, and we needed the city, and they responded, and yes, I was likewise proud of the students’ reactions. It was a little bigger than I would have liked…
Uhlir: …because the safety of the officers is paramount in my job. But we were able to maintain order, and the city wasn’t standing on the sidelines to watch us on this one. They got in there and helped, and, again, the students did react well. There were a couple that could have been a little milder maybe in the response, but overall the student body was great.
Mell: A couple made their points…
Sorensen: There was a lot of emotion…
Thomas: There was a lot of emotion attached; a lot of emotion attached to that.
Uhlir: And there was a prayer service that was an excellent counterprotest inside the union while that went on. A lot of people don’t know about that.
Thomas: And I think lessons learned is that with electronic communication, word travels very quickly. Facebook, so in another situation we would definitely be a little bit more aware of the potential, I think.
Sorensen: I want to give kudos though to Doug, because that is a very important issue. But we did notify the press, the media, and got ahead of that curve a bit, and the press, I thought, behaved very, very well because we were open with them; we were honest with them, gave them the information, and then we stayed in touch with them. Kept our Web site up-to-date. That was a very important part of it.
Mell: Our Web site is – the electronic media, the age that we’re in now, we were sharing earlier, we had 30,000 more hits on our Web site the week after our incident than we did the week before – 30,000. And a lot of these people were staying. Eight to 10,000 were staying. And I think what it did was, it helped the families, because people weren’t calling them for information. We got the pictures out; they weren’t calling them. It also helped us because we weren’t having to deal with telephone calls and we --.
Thomas: Right. And I think we were very – I mean we shared as much information as we had, and so –.
Sorensen: And kept it up-to-date. I got a very touching e-mail Duluth, a student from Minnesota Duluth who praises — I shared it with a lot of people — who were very, very appreciative how we kept things up-to-date. We did what we could in terms of giving information, and he really applauded us. It’s really nice when another school recognizes what we’re doing, how hard it is to do that, and what it takes to accomplish.
Mell: Well, again, it’s the same thing. It’s like what Jim does. It’s training and planning. We had templates that were ready to go. We had experienced people, as Joan said, who were around. We were fortuitous in that where we had people here that were able to do that because this doesn’t happen by accident. Any parting…?
Sorensen: Well, to me, the final lesson learned has got to be to deal with the student body in such a way; these young people, they take risks; they take chances and don’t realize the consequences and somehow, to reach them on this kind of tragedy as a teachable moment, to remain safe and to not get themselves into trouble and to get through the day safely.
Mell: I think that’s a great way to end. I’d like to thank our three guests today for the special edition of About Stout. Speaking for Chancellor Charles Sorensen, Dean of Students Joan Thomas and Health and Safety Executive Director Jim Uhlir, I’d like to express our sympathies to the families and friends of April, Amanda and Scott.