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August 30, 2007

Life in the slow lane (sort of) for UPG safety director

Homicide, arson and robbery are pretty much just memories for Tom Horan, director of Safety and Security at Pitt’s Greensburg campus.

“The pace is a little slower here,” he admitted.

Horan formerly was a police officer in Rostraver Township then a detective at the Westmoreland County Detective Bureau, where he investigated all types of criminal activity including murders, assaults and financial crimes.

“The kids who come to our campus, with a few exceptions, want to come here and get an education. I don’t have demonstrations. I don’t have protests. The students have their little debates, but we don’t have any major crimes here,” he said.

Horan, a Belle Vernon native, had dreamed of being a police officer for as long as he can remember.

Following high school, he enlisted in the Navy and started his police training via correspondence courses. Later on, Horan earned bachelor’s (1983) and master’s (1986) degrees in administration of justice, both at Pitt. In 1990 he graduated from the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s National Academy in Quantico, Va., an invitation-only course of study for law enforcement leaders.

So why the switch to the relatively quiet confines of a regional campus environment?

“After 25 years of your phone ringing at all hours of the night, and 50-60-hour weeks, I was looking to wind down a little bit,” Horan said.

The opportunity to be in charge of a department, long one of his career goals, came with the UPG job offer. “It was a nice challenge, and I already knew there were some things that needed to be done here.”

Principal among those improvements was converting his security staff of six into a staff of certified police officers, Horan said. “We started in 2003 and by early 2005 everybody was a police officer,” he noted.

Horan acknowledged that he’d prefer to have a bigger police force at UPG, but it’s an issue of dollars. “I just don’t think it’s a good practice to have only one officer on a shift,” he said, adding that his boss Carl Rossman, UPG vice president for administrative affairs, is sympathetic to his concerns.

Horan is among the most visible presences in the 2,000-member UPG community not only as safety and security director, but also as president of the campus’s Staff Association for the past three years. In addition, he periodically teaches Introduction to Criminology at UPG, making him the rare combination of both staff and faculty.

Horan’s teaching extends beyond UPG. He also has been a part-time instructor at Westmoreland County Community College since 1986, and since 1990 has trained officers and instructors in a number of specialties offered by the Pennsylvania’s Municipal Police Officers Education and Training Commission in Harrisburg. (See related story, this issue.)

This is one busy man, but one who clearly enjoys his work.

“People say to me, ‘You are a little older. What are doing on a college campus?’ Well, the answer is: I like the academic atmosphere. I like working with the kids. I think it’s a nice fit,” he explained. “All the kids know me. That’s one of the benefits of a small campus.”

Horan occasionally hobnobs with the students at lunch or around campus. “Over the years I’ve established enough of a relationship that the older kids will tell the younger kids two things: ‘Don’t cross Mr. Horan’; but also, ‘If you have a problem, go see Mr. Horan.’”

His open-door policy is one of his strengths, Horan said. As an example, a group of students asked him to serve as sponsor for their campus paintball club.

But like any college campus, all is not idyllic, he acknowledged.

Horan refers major incidents to the state police or the district attorney’s office. “We had one instance of child pornography when I first got here, and that was referred directly to the state police,” he said. “But there are only a couple of instances I remember where we had to do that. We handle almost everything here.”

When systemic problems, such as petty theft or minor fender-benders in the parking lots, are discovered, Horan has found some creative solutions.

“When I came here thefts were high here in the residence halls,” he said. “I realized that in order to lock the doors, the kids had to use their keys. And kids are lazy. They just pull the door shut. Once we were made aware of that, we spent a lot of money and we changed all those locks so that when they shut the door it locks. And our calls on theft went way down.”

Instead his department gets a number of calls from students locked out of their rooms, he said. “But I’ll take those calls any day, rather than: ‘My laptop was taken.’”

Another security innovation Horan instituted was the installation of 26 surveillance cameras on campus.

“When we put cameras in the parking lots, my hit-and-run accidents went straight down. If you get 1,000 teenage drivers, some of them would just back out, hit another car and just drive away. When we installed cameras around those areas, kids got the word and now we rarely have any. If we do, there’s at least an 80 percent chance we’ll catch the person.”

Cameras also monitor the science classrooms for two reasons, he said: to combat theft and to document any lab accidents.

Another Horan innovation was tying the campus’s police radio system directly into the local 911 emergency system and into a new 800-megahertz communication system. “If an emergency happens anywhere in Westmoreland County, here on campus or wherever, we just have to go on a designated channel and everybody will go to that channel: police, fire, EMS, Pitt police, and we can talk to everybody,” Horan pointed out. “I don’t know of any other campus that has this.”

Following last spring’s mass shooting at Virginia Tech, Horan and his safety and security counterparts from Pitt’s other four campuses met to discuss strategies, he said.

While his officers have been trained to deal with such emergencies, faculty at UPG have not. For the first time this fall, Horan will offer a faculty training session where he plans to focus on what to do in the event of an major incident in the classroom. He has dealt with minor incidents of disruptive students on occasion already, he noted. “I’ve gotten a couple calls from faculty, particularly from female faculty, saying, ‘I have a disruptive student and I’m a little unsure of what to do.’ So I’ll go sit in a class or two. And 90 percent of the time, that ends it,” Horan said.

As for his role as president of the Staff Association, a group largely focused on charitable work in the Greensburg area, Horan said it’s in his character to be a leader. “I’m involved in a lot of volunteer work already, and it just fits,” he said.

Only once did his role as safety and security chief and staff leader conflict, he said, when the campus initiated a parking fee. “I got caught in the middle, because I’m the enforcement end of that,” Horan said. “It was instituted last summer, and of course some of the staff members voiced their displeasure.”

But the Staff Association united and sent a letter voicing its concerns to administrators.

Horan has no plans to change jobs again. “I’ll tell you how much I enjoy it here: My intent is never to leave. Whenever it’s time for me to leave age-wise, this is my last job.”

—Peter Hart

Filed under: Feature,Volume 40 Issue 1

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