Ep. 08 UNC Charlotte active shooter incident

Appalachian State University Emergency Planner and host Debi Trivette talks with Chris Gonyar, director of emergency management at UNC Charlotte, about the active shooter incident that occurred on the Charlotte campus in April 2019.


Debi Trivette: Hi, Thank You so much for joining us for our eighth-podcast episode about Emergency Management at Appalachian State University. I'm Debi Trivette the Emergency Planner for Appalachian State University. Today we have a special guest with us today, Chris Gonyar. Chris is the director of Emergency Management at UNC Charlotte and he is going to talk to us a little bit about the active shooter indecent that happened on the UNC Charlotte Campus. Chris, thank you so much for joining us today, can you tell us just a little bit about yourself.

Chris Gonyar: Sure, absolutely my pleasure, I have been with UNC Charlotte for just over five years now in this role and prior to that worked in the private sector in consulting for about eight years. working on all types of emergency plans and training's and exercises for jurisdictions kind of all across the country. so excited background in being able to see you know a little bit of everything in a number of states across the country, but really have always really enjoyed emergency preparedness, emergency planning in higher education. I actually graduated from UNC Charlotte so when the opportunity came open to um to maybe do something more solely focused in EM in higher ed I jumped at the opportunity.

DT: Well were certainly glad you did, and you have had some experiences we hope we never have here, but we wanted to talk a little bit about it today. Getting first hand from someone who was there and lived through the whole thing and not only lived through it but responded with just great information for us all to be able to learn from. Would you mind telling us about the active shooter indecent that happened on your campus?

CG: Sure, so um you know April 30th, I think one of those days that we as emergency mangers you know safety and security professional's um hoped would never come true. Um, you know we worked so hard in planning for and preparing for and training and exercising for you know that type of incident you sort of hope you never have to implement the plans and you know unfortunately on the 30th we did. I think one of the things I saw sort of first hand on the 30th was something that maybe we know in the back of our minds working in emergency management, working with law enforcement and first responders that when faced with sort of the worst-case scenario, how we all came together as a community. Without any hesitation, without and pause and just all got in you know the same boat together and started rowing in the same direction. to respond to something as best as we could. Um, it really just showed for me firsthand how important it is and why it's so important that we spend the time building relationships and building plans and training and exercising you know these things that we work on a day to day biases that are tedious and difficult and you know trying to make sure that everybody with differing personalities and perspectives can all sort of come together and see it work and sort of come together in a space of such a tragedy was um was I don't think we could have asked anything more from our campus community as well as our external partners in coming together and getting the job done.

DT: That's wonderful. I can't imagine how frightening that must have felt when you got the call saying that there was an active shooter indecent on campus.

CG: Um yea, it was absolutely. I had left campus for the day and actually got a text message from one of the graduate assistants in our office and he was on campus still taking a class and asked me if I was aware of anything going on campus. Of course, at that point I was not, but immediately you know checked my email. This was probably two minutes or so, three minutes after the actual shooting had accrued. Checked my phone, we have a mobile safety app on campus that I get a email when anybody in our community sends in a report. So, when I you know got the text message from him I immediately flipped over to my email. On a sort of a typical or average day, we get about two to three reports into that safety app and I had about three scrolls of my finger. Probably a couple dozen that had come in already and I said oh geeze, there is something going on. So, I immediately got myself back together, got in the car and headed back towards campus. First call was to our chief of police. He did not answer, which was, of-coarse, not a good sign. We have you know kind of an agreement that when I call him or when he calls me, we answer 24/7. I had made my way a about halfway; I live about fifteen minutes from campus, made my way about halfway to campus and was still sort of expecting that the situation was not going to be what I was seeing in the reports. Certainly, will never forget the chief called me back and his first words was, Chris its real we have two deceased. and um you know those are certainly words that um I will never forget. and then from there you know the first couple hours where again pretty much a whirl wind, where your walking through the steps and you're doing things that you practice and thought about and you just kind of your coming sort of second nature I guess. It wasn't until you know later on a week or two weeks down the road when we started to kind of pull together some of our internal after-action reporting. You know that I was able to take a step back and think about the time line and how the time line differed from what I had sort of though or remembered. Um you know there where some things that the time line where quite a bit different than I had remembered. There were things that were relatively close but certainly um not a call that I was expecting and one that I obviously hope to never get again.

DT: No Kidding. I just really can't imagine what that must have felt like. When you got back to campus what was it like then?

CG: Initially, I would say it was uh eerily quiet. Um, I came back through one of sort of our secondary entrances and exits to campus which is closest to our Emergency Operations Center. Um I got up back on campus probably about 20 minutes after the shooting had occurred, maybe 25 minutes after the shooting had occurred. No vehicle traffic on campus, there was a perimeter um at least for that entrance and exit had not been established yet. I got through and got to our building very quickly but it was again sort of eerie and a different feel on campus. Just no vehicle traffic and nobody moving around at least at the area I was in, which is just a bit removed from um the building. Once we got access back into the building and the Emergency Operations Center, it was pretty quick than that, um you know, our internal personal that could also get back on campus and where not locked down in buildings and then our external partners started showing up. So, there was really not time from the moment that I got back on campus to sort of access the situation before we were really fully staffed and really going. And then, of course, at one point I did make my way over to indecent command, the unified command that established right outside of the building. It was certainly a fare different scene there, estimate a couple hundred you know law enforcement, medic, fire personnel. Vehicles where everywhere and um the news media helicopters where circling. Again, things that in the moment it didn't necessarily really click or sink in but in seeing the news media footage and stuff afterwards it does start to kind of send home that there was really a lot going on.

DT: If I remember correctly y'all had a concert or something on campus that night. So, police were on campus already.

CG: Yes, correct. So, we had a fairly large concert scheduled. So, we had pretty substantially increased campus police presence that was still on campus. I think they had just completed their beefing for the event and many of the officers where making their way to their vehicles to head to their post for the concert. We had external partners that where at the very last en-route to campus to support the event. So, at the time of the shooting there was already a pretty heavily increase law enforcement and other safety and security personnel presence on campus proper or in very close proximity.

DT: This whole incident even affected your exam schedules.

CG: It did, I think that was one of the things that as we moved through the following couple of weeks that I think sometimes you maybe don't think about, you don't necessarily see every time. So, for us, you know a winter storm event or hurricane event in which we are impacted but relatively minimal impact. So, hurricane Florence for example, we prepared for it had our EOC operational for a week or more during Florence. The actual impacts where very limited. So, as the storm cleared and moved through, we closed down the EOC and the campus went back to doing what where doing. But in this case, when local law enforcement had released the building back to us and locked down was lifted, one of the things that was so striking was that the people on campus not only just sort of our safety and security personnel but our student affairs, our academic affairs, our facility management, our housing, you know we had finals and then we had commencement. The week after commencement we had a planned power outage that was going to impact all of campus. so those of us that where the most intimately involved in responding to the operational response, the immediate recovery from the incident we had you know another two weeks plus of very difficult work that we had to continue to make sure that exams schedules where redone and that the security plan for commencement was revamped and redone. And the communications and stuff related to the power outage was effective and efficient. So, it was you know not just sort of when the lock down was lifted and the building released back to us, that everybody was able to take a breather and move into kind-of the recovery of the event or the incident. We were still very much in operation mode for some period of time.

DT: Yea, so today is that building still in use, the room? How does that work?

CG: No. So, the room is not. The room is off limits and will be at the very least until the fall semester. Our chancellor has put together a remembrance commission and has tasked the remembrance commission with coming up with some ideas and proposals for not only programming around the remembrance and particularly the year anniversary but also looking at what that specific classroom and what may be done in the future with that building or in terms of a longer term or permanent remembrance. So, that building is actually if not the oldest, one of the oldest buildings on our campus. It also houses our IT department so that was something else that in the immediate aftermath you know obviously that class room was locked and off limits but we had to pretty quickly figure out a way that we were going to be able to keep IT function operating when something had accrued in the building in which they reside.

DT: Yeah. Do you still have students or faculty and staff wanting counseling over this?

CG: We do. I think that is one of the areas that I have been the most impressed with in not only the immediate aftermath of the indecent so with the hours following, but as we have gone through the summer as well. You know our concealing and psychological services department for students support and counseling and also the EAP function through our HR has just been so incredible and just worked so hard to prepare faculty, staff, and students to come back on campus and feel safe and feel comfortable and ask questions. I think one of the things that has been most striking to me and I actually just sort of heard it framed this way in the last couple of days. You know those of us that are full time staff and where sort of immediately involved in this we have continued to sort of work through the summer and we have been working on this programming and we have been working on after action and we have been working on safety and security enhancements. There are faculty, staff and students that are just now arriving back on campus and you know having been locked down for hours on campus left that night and had not been back on campus sense if they had opted out of taking that final exam. I heard it framed the other day that for them, you know, as they are arriving on campus, this is May 2nd to them. Whereas, most of the rest of us have been on campus through the summer so we have kind of moved beyond that May 2nd piece. But we still have a large portion of our population that have not and you know we have been developing programming and looking at how do we support those people that as they come back on to campus. They may have been fine all summer and now they are coming back to campus and this is going to bring up memories and things that they may struggle through and they may have difficulty with. Certainly, still more work to be done but I think we are sort of working through it one day at a time right now.

DT: Well, Chris, thank you so much for all you have done and all you have shared. Our hearts and our respect are with you and the campus as a whole. We are still standing and thinking about you and this whole incident. I appreciate you sharing what you shared with us today.

CG: Absolutely. Thank You.

DT: I want to thank you audience for joining us today and please join us next month for our next episode of the podcast Emergency Management at Appalachian State University. For more information on Emergency Management related topics and training opportunities please visit emergency.appstate.edu feel free to email questions to safety@appstate.edu.

DT: Thank you very much.