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PennComm Officer Ommett Levine remained vigilant as Pope Francis celebrated the Mass in Philadelphia this past weekend.

Credit: Lowell Neumann Nickey

Contrary to what one might assume from the high military presence in University City, Penn Emergency Operations Center managed the area’s influx of up to a million people this weekend for the papal visit.

The words “calm,” “tranquil” and “serene” might not be the first ones thatpop into one’s head when imagining an emergency operations center managing nearly a million pedestrians. The scene at the Division of Public Safety´s papal EOC, however, was just that on Sunday evening as Pope Francis made his way onto Benjamin Franklin Parkway to celebrate Mass.

Students likely noticed the high number of National Guardsmen stationed on and around campus. Less noticeably, they all had a supervisor at the EOC — the National Guard provided support to DPS and Penn Police, deferring to their judgment and local knowledge at almost every turn.

Many members of DPS and Penn Police, including PennComm, stayed around campus for the weekend, bunking in the International House, the Sheraton Hotel and the Homewood Suites. Some administrative staff had air mattresses in their offices, allowing them to provide constant accessibility and accountability from the highest level.

“Francis has brought a good feeling to the city — everyone seems to be getting along,” Vice President for Public Safety Maureen Rush said.

“We give a big thank you to the student body,” Rush added. “We worked closely with VPUL, the Office of Fraternity and Sorority Affairs and coaches to get the message out that this was not the weekend to be in the hospital for alcohol consumption.” Only eight students were hospitalized over the weekend as of 3 p.m. on Sunday, well below normal weekend numbers, according to DPS.

At 3:15 p.m., the pope was making an impromptu stop on Saint John’s campus, delaying the time of his arrival at the Benjamin Franklin Parkway. This change in plans was taken by all members of the EOC in stride, as the appropriate calls updating the officers on the streets were made.

Rush shared a story about the pope’s initial arrival at the Philadelphia airport, in which Francis had his Fiat pulled over so that he could bless a young man bound to a wheelchair with cerebral palsy. A Penn alumnus working for ABC’s Good Morning America reached out to Rush, requesting a venue to meet with the boy, his family and local officers. The meeting ended up happening in the DPS building thanks to the connection between Rush and the ABC employee.

Downstairs from the EOC, in DPS’ PennComm center, the scene could be described as livelier, but still entirely under control. At this point the staff was slightly weary from a long weekend of 12-hour shifts, but vigilance and communications were clearly not impacted at all. Every desk was filled with a person and a coffee, and every screen was being carefully watched.

Interdepartmental communication was a key theme of the weekend, with calls coming in from all across the city requesting assistance with transportation to and from hospitals. Three hospitals were within the DPS EOC coverage: the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania and the Penn Presbyterian Medical Center. All three were receiving visits throughout the weekend. The radio chatter was almost constant, with updates on everything from unauthorized vehicles entering the no-drive zone to up-to-the-minute details on the pope’s location.

The EOC also featured a list of exceptions for the no-drive zone, such as a shuttle run by the Ronald McDonald House to transport patients and their family members to and from the area’s hospitals and the house. At one point, a HUP employee called in to request directions to the Walt Whitman Bridge. Veronica Anderson from Fire and Emergency Services gave specific details on the best route to take as well as directions on how to navigate the barricades.

Moments such as these were high in energy, but it was clear that everyone involved knew their role and the team was consistently able to sync-up and resolve one situation after another.

Members of the EOC staff had a positive attitude throughout the evening, with cell phones being passed around sharing the latest viral moments from the pope’s visit. One particular video of a baby dressed as the Pope was received with smiles all around.

The EOC is in session at other times, including during the Penn Relays and when any severe weather occurs in the area. There is a significantly scaled-down EOC during Spring Fling as well.

DPS staff were optimistic about the pope’s visit as great practice for when Philadelphia will play host to the Democratic National Convention in July 2016.

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