Be Prepared

Photo by author

Photo by author

After the shooting at my library in 2009, it was clear that I needed to do a better job of keeping my employees and patrons as safe as possible in emergencies.

We have since updated our emergency procedures and the physical building. Luckily, our township has a top-notch Public Safety department to advise us, which includes police, fire, and emergency planning services. I am also lucky in that my managers and staff are really good at planning, documenting, implementation, and training.

One of our employees is the designated Emergency Manual person. She makes sure our emergency procedures are up-to-date and disseminated to staff, schedules and implements drills and training, keeps our emergency supplies current, and makes suggestions for policy changes and other improvements.

The Emergency Manual covers just about everything: building evacuation, severe weather, power outages, plumbing problems, roof leaks, bomb threats, and (now) active shooter incidents. At our Staff Inservice Day this year, she organized our first active shooter drill, with two police officers playing the roles of shooters who were trying to get into various areas of the library to find victims. I am pleased to say that we passed with flying colors–given the terrific response from my staff back in 2009, this didn’t surprise me.

Our IT and Security staff upgraded our camera system from analog to digital, adding dozens of cameras to the public areas and the building exterior. A township police sergeant walked the building with us to determine priorities and placement. More than 50 cameras are now viewable from any staff computer, in single views or multiple configurations. We have worked on this project in phases over the last four years using the priorities we established. The camera upgrades came in  handy as we lost staff through attrition–usage went up at the same time, which meant it was difficult for our reduced staff to physically patrol all of the nooks, crannies, and blindspots in our building.

We also upgraded our door access system. Previously, only a few employees had keys to the staff entrance, and most everyone else had to push a buzzer and wait to be let in to the building. With the buzzer going off all the time, we got into a pattern of just buzzing people in automatically, without always checking who they were. We worked with our alarm company to upgrade the door system. Now, all regular employees use their ID badges to enter the building themselves (temps and volunteers still get buzzed in). If an employee loses her badge, we can immediately deactivate the old badge and issue a new one with a new security code. Badge access can be restricted to certain times of day depending on the employee, and arm/disarm ability can be assigned permanently or on an as-needed basis, like for specific Pages coming in on a holiday to empty the return bins. The managers and I still have physical keys to the building for when the power goes out.

We also secured staff spaces. Doors from the public areas to the staff areas were previously unlocked and unsecured; it wasn’t uncommon for a preschooler to wander into the children’s staff workroom. At the Checkout Desk, a waist-high swinging gate was all that kept people from entering the staff area. We replaced the swinging gate with an actual door, and all doors leading to staff areas now require badge access. At the moment, it is possible for a determined interloper to hoist him/herself over the Checkout Desk counter and get into the staff area; in 2014 this will no longer be possible thanks to a small renovation project that will make our staff areas totally secure.

Due to the door access upgrade, everyone now wears ID badges. Before, nametags were worn…sometimes…by most people. When you have more than 100 employees and about as many volunteers and Friends of the Library, it can be difficult to tell who is wandering and who really is official–you may know the people you work with all the time, but it is nearly impossible for everyone to know everyone else on sight. The ID badges have helped with this.

Wearing an ID badge may have been the most difficult transition for my employees to make. I’ve worked in retail and in corporate settings, where ID badges are a “so what?” issue, but there is something about libraries where we are resistant to ID badges. (I understand people’s concerns, but I disagree that the concerns are so compelling that they outweigh the benefits of our ID badges.) We facilitated adoption by tying the badges to building access–you can’t get in the building or into staff areas if you don’t have your badge to open the doors (well, okay, you can, but it means you have to wait for someone to stop being busy so that they can let you in, so there’s a barrier). Some people expected all kinds of ID badge horrors, but our biggest problem was that the first-generation badges broke easily, so we bought new badges last year that are more heavy duty and less brittle.

We have panic buttons at some service desks, and when they are pushed, it opens a line to our alarm company, who alerts police/fire. We actually had these panic buttons already; I mention them because it is part of our overall safety plan. The button is mounted to the underside of the desk, similar to what you’d see in a bank.

Ongoing communication is key to making sure we’re up to date and prepared for emergencies. We encourage employees to submit Incident Reports for anything that causes concern, and to call the police if they decide it’s necessary. I have told them that they’ll never get in trouble for submitting too many incident reports; they actually help me and the managers to see patterns of behavior and connect the dots if there is one patron who is giving everyone a hard time.

We stay in touch with our Sergeant, who comes over every year or so to do a walk-around. Public Safety has also made it clear that they will support us whenever we call them, and now we are less hesitant about calling them if needed. In most cases, when a troublesome person hears one of my staff say that she will call for a patrol car, the confidence in her voice is enough to get the patron to comply. In the cases where we do call for an officer, the police take us seriously and respond quickly.

I know that I can’t make my library 100% secure all of the time. Since the shooting four years ago, though, we’ve made some really great improvements that bring me peace of mind. If an emergency occurs at the library, I am confident that my employees have the tools, skills, and training to address it.

Tears, Like a Boss

I am known for being emotionally level. People have called me an automaton, and I’ve taken it as a compliment. But even I cry at the library. My most tear-filled week was in September 2009, when there was a murder-suicide in our parking lot.

by sethoscope via cc

by sethoscope via cc

I was out at a meeting when one of my managers called and said, “We’re all fine, but there’s been a shooting in the parking lot and I think you need to come back.” The hour it took me to excuse myself from the meeting, get back to my car, and drive to my library was one of the longest hours of my life. I made calls to my family and my Board Chair, and couldn’t keep the tears from flowing while I explained that there had been a shooting and that I was racing back to the building. After I finished the calls, I spent the rest of the drive crying.

The parking lot was sealed off when I arrived. I parked across the way and walked through the crowd of reporters and onlookers. The Deputy Police Chief recognized me, pulled me aside, and filled me in: A man had killed a woman and then killed himself. He wasn’t going to let me by. My eyes teared up; I was frustrated that I couldn’t get in there to do my job. I told him I needed to get in to the library to talk with my employees, my managers, my patrons. I needed to get in there to plan, to contact my board, to make arrangements to close for the day. He conferred with the Public Safety Director, and told me to walk the long way around the building (to avoid the crime scene), but he did let me go in.

Once inside, I tried to be all business. I called my managers together and we discussed the details of closing–all the notices and processes and signs that needed to be taken care of. I remember having a moment, checking myself; two members of my community were dead in front of our library, and I’m sitting here talking about issues as mundane as changing the phone message? It seemed crazy and surreal, and yet it needed to be done. So I did it. I held it together–we all held it together–and got the practical items taken care of.

When all of the patrons and staff gave statements and the officers left the building, officially closing us down, I called my employees together. Looking at their expectant faces, I burst into tears. (I’m not an attractive crier, by the way–the eyes puff, the nose runs, the mouth twists into grotesque sobs.) I cried as I told them how proud I was of their quick actions to call 911, secure the building, yell at people to get the *[email protected]! away from the windows, and protect innocent people from harm. I cried as I told them how the phone call made my stomach fall. I cried as I said how glad I was that none of them were hurt. I cried as I told them how sorry I was that I hadn’t been here for them. I was still crying when I told them that we would not reopen that day, and that everyone should go home and be with their families.

Our HR manager arranged for a grief counselor to come that week. I was one of the first people in line to see him, and when he patted my arm and said, “I know you are probably blaming yourself in some way, and you shouldn’t. This wasn’t your fault,” I started crying again, in front of this stranger. Because it was true–I couldn’t help but feel like I’d failed by not being here when the shooting happened. I am the director, I am responsible for my people, my patrons, their safety–I should have been here, I should have protected them. He said this was a natural tendency, and we had a good talk.

I felt weak for crying in front of everyone–my family, my board chair, the police, my coworkers, the counselor. I believed that good directors don’t cry in front of their employees. Still fairly new, in only year two of my job, I was convinced that I’d lost all credibility–no one would ever take me seriously again, and I would forever be branded as an emotional wreck of a boss who cried (a lot).

I was wrong. Employees came by to check on me. They hugged me (which made me cry–I told you, I cried a lot that week). They told me that crying humanized me. My tears showed how much I cared about them. My clear sadness about the deaths of two of our neighbors showed how much I cared about the community. My Board Chair told me later that my ability to focus on the situation while also crying at the same time showed that I was the right person to lead the library, that I had a good balance of head and heart (I think she was being overly generous here because she knew I was at a low point–I am way more head than heart).

I am still largely a level-headed automaton, but I learned that week that it is possible for me to be emotional at work and still be considered an effective boss.

Worst Case Scenario

photo credit: rustman via photopin cc

photo credit: rustman via photopin cc

I had a Librarian in Charge moment last weekend. There was a plumbing problem, and being the Librarian in Charge, I called the plumber.

So far so good.

As it turns out, the problem required all bathrooms in the building to be put out of order until the problem was fixed. Well, you can’t not have bathrooms for staff or public, and the fix was going to take at least a few hours, according to the plumbers. I made the dreaded “do we close the building early or not” decision. It wasn’t a hard decision, actually. No working toilets means we close the building. End of story. I made a building-wide announcement and the staff got the patrons out of the building. We closed an hour and a half early and the plumbers went about their business.

The story goes on, but the point here is that sometimes as the Librarian in Charge you have to make difficult decisions. Ask yourself: Is the decision I am making going to help the situation or hurt it? In this case, closing the library early helps the people fixing the problem and only inconveniences (not “hurts”) the people trying to use the library. Fixing the problem obviously trumps. Score one in that category.

The next question to ask yourself is: What is the worst thing that could happen? Well, if we stay open without bathrooms, we break the labor law that says we must make toilet facilities available at work sites. That’s a big one! We can not require staff to continue working in a building with no working toilet facilities. There is also a Michigan law about having bathroom facilities available to customers in public places. Call me paranoid, but I just don’t think breaking the law is a good idea. I can’t think of a “worst thing that could happen” by closing early. Someone doesn’t get to check their email on a public computer? They don’t get to pick up their hold? These are not worst-thing scenarios. They are inconveniences. Law trumps inconvenience, so score one in this category too.

The library closed an hour and a half early on a Saturday and I felt pretty confident in that decision. Of course, I left messages for the Library Director and a few other administrative staff members. I sent emails documenting how it all went down. Again, I felt pretty confident in my decision making.

I am fortunate to work in a place where, even if you make a bad decision, as long as your reasoning is sound you will generally be backed up. In this case, it was a good decision and everything worked out fine. There have been times, though, where my co-workers have made decisions that I would not have made. That does not make them bad decisions. If their reasoning is sound – if they were trying to help the situation and can explain how they thought their decision would help – I can usually get on board.

Emergencies – Larger Library Viewpoint

Mary Kelly recently wrote about handling emergencies from a small library perspective, and we thought it might be interesting to tackle the same subject from a larger library viewpoint.  I work in a medium-sized library.  It is a three-story building in a suburban area with more than fifty people on staff.  There is only one main library; no branches.  I manage the adult services department.

First of all, Mary’s three scenarios were perfect because they’re fairly universal among libraries.  I’ll just point out here some other considerations that larger libraries would have to make in situations like those.

First of all, this is a blog about leadership, so I want to make that connection clear.  Who, in your library, handles either emergencies or uncomfortable patron situations?  Is it the Director? A security guard?  Whoever sees it first?  In a larger library like mine, we have designated “Librarians in Charge.”  They are seen as leaders; people who have enough experience to be aware of trends, people who have a solid grip on policies and procedures, and people who are trusted to make solid decisions in uncertain circumstances.  Any staff member can call any person designated as a Librarian in Charge for help with any situation.  That said, someone has to handle the situation until an LIC can get there.  Everyone has to take some level of responsibility and use their good judgment and the training all staff members receive.  Situations don’t just get pawned off on the LIC.  The LIC is there to make a final decision if needed and to back up the junior staff in any way they need.  The junior staff still has to take responsibility for handling the situation until the LIC arrives, and even to use their judgment to decide when an LIC is necessary at all.  Consider the situation Mary mentioned about the student who got physical with his tutor.  The junior staff member can’t just let it go until the LIC arrives; they must intervene so it doesn’t get worse.  They need to approach the problem, assess it, and take some sort of action.  Since the student left the building, the tutor should be taken aside and reassured in a safe area that the police are on their way.  It is unfortunate that in her example the Sheriff took two hours to get there. Our building is right next door to the police station, so the authorities show up very quickly when we call for help.  Being a large, prominent building in our community is another pro when it comes to being on the radar of emergency personnel.

Second, I mentioned that I work in a three-story building.  There are times when there is one staff person at each service desk.  If that person leaves the floor they are on, there is no one securing that floor.  We see staffing desks as much a security issue as a service issue.   When an emergency arises, we may need to call for backup.  Ideally, the backup person is someone who is off-desk.  There are pros and cons to a large physical building when emergencies happen.  A pro is that there are lots of staff members in the building at any given time, so getting help is not difficult. The con is that those people are potentially on another floor and it will take them some time to get to you.  Another pro is that an emergency on one floor may not affect patrons on another floor, so keeping patrons under control is much easier.  In a small library, it is possible that the spectacle becomes library-wide and panic ensues.  Another con is that if it is the kind of emergency where everyone needs to be aware (like if you’re looking for a missing child), it takes more time to let staff on all floors know what is going on.  In our larger building, when a child goes missing, all service desks are notified immediately and off-desk staff come out to help look for the child until the police get there.  In Mary’s scenario of the child left in the library while the mother went grocery shopping, we would have plenty of staff members to stay with the child while the parent is tracked down.  We are certainly not a babysitting service, but a young child cannot be left alone for any amount of time, so someone needs to watch the child until the police, or parent, arrives.  We could fairly easily carry on with business at the service desks while the situation is handled by other staff members.

Last, in a large library with lots of staff members, we are on-desk and off-desk at different times.  My regular patrons are potentially different people than someone else sees when they are at the same desk at a different time of day.  Communicating to the staff who a perpetrator was so that we can all be vigilant when that person is around is much more difficult.  We have to fill out incident reports and include patron names whenever possible.  Being able to describe the patron is crucial.  The pros in this situation are that the same librarian is likely to encounter that patron again and already be aware of the situation.  The con is that…well, the same librarian is likely to encounter that patron again.  In Mary’s example of the two men in a shoving match at the computers, in our building the librarian who broke up the fight will often be the librarian on duty at that desk every time those regular patrons come in, assuming they stick to their regular routine and keep coming back to use computers at their regular times.  Hopefully one of the men will alter his routine and the librarian won’t encounter that problem repeatedly!

As you can see there are many considerations in larger libraries when dealing with both emergencies and “uncomfortable patron situations.”  As library leaders, we need to have a game plan, have confidence, and exude authority.  We owe it to our patrons to make them feel safe.  No one wants to deal with unpleasantness, but if you ignore it you’ve ignored everyone else’s need and right to safety.

Martial arts knowledge

It’s an Emergency!

Martial arts knowledgeEvery librarian I know has a story about something weird, disgusting, criminal or out of the ordinary at the library.Large scale emergencies are usually obvious and have been addressed in emergency manuals.  Everyone understands the obvious fire or accident, but sometimes things happen that do not fall clearly into the “emergency” column. Having worked mostly in smaller libraries and with small staff, I have been on the spot many times. Let me give a couple of examples from my own experience:

  • Two men verbally sparring about someone being too loud.  It escalates quickly into a shoving match.
  • A woman complains that a student she is tutoring has threatened her.
  • A parent left a four year old child in the youth area while she ran to the grocery store.

I would guess that for most experienced librarians, the above scenarios are not that unusual.  However, these situations do have the potential to escalate into full scale emergencies.  If you are new to working with the public, making that first decision is tough and scary.  Here is a handy guide to handling these situations.

  1. Get back up help. This can mean having a co-worker with you and/or calling a supervisor.  I have even had help from a regular patron.  (Think of this as “two heads are better than one.”)
  2. Assess the situation.  If there are harsh words being spoken, a crying child, or someone who looks ill, it will be necessary to intervene by asking, “Is there a problem?  What is going on?” Use neutral language and project authority.
  3. Make a decision and follow through. Use your own judgment about the gravity of a situation. If you even think “maybe we should call the police,” call them.  However, do not sound indecisive in front of others, especially patrons.
  4. Write an incident report as soon as possible. Use neutral language and stick to the facts. If you don’t know the names of the people involved describe as much as you can remember. It is important to inform all staff of this incident.  Any unique or unusual situation (regardless of the outcome) is an opportunity to discuss and prepare for the next unusual situation.

So what about my problem situations presented above?  Here is what happened:

One man complained that the man next to him was making noise at the computer.  Things escalated and quickly turned physical with a shoving match.  The librarian spoke in a loud and authoritative tone and told the men to sit down at different computer chairs in different parts of the room, and told them to be quiet.  I believe she also shamed them a bit for making a scene.  Both men calmed down and there was no further incident.  What was helpful in this situation is that both patrons were regulars and knew the librarian, which gave her more confidence to be authoritative with them.

The tutor incident happened to me and I was alone at the reference desk.  (There were a few patrons around.)  The woman approached the reference desk and said that her student had made threatening moves and put his hands on her.  I was calling the police as the perpetrator decided to get into a shoving match with me by snatching the phone.  Immediately, two circulation staffers came running and two patrons that I know came over as well.  The student took off.  Two hours later the sheriff showed up and took statements.

The child left in the library was known to the librarian, and the mother returned about a half hour later.  Of course she had no idea that leaving a child while she ran errands was a bad idea.  Since the librarian knew the parent (and child), she lectured the parent on library safety issues and that staff is instructed to call the police under these circumstances.  Parent, duly ashamed, apologized and there was no further incident.

Library security is an issue that everyone needs to take seriously.  Reviewing policies and procedures frequently will always help next time (and there will always be a next time) a problem shows up in your library.

For more reading on library security:

Black Belt Librarian: Real World Safety and Security
Warren Graham
ISBN 978-0838911372