Faculty Senate hears report on emergency-preparedness plan

Earthquakes, disease outbreaks, acts of terrorism weighed in plan

CHUCK PAINTER planning library

Bookshelves throughout campus toppled like dominoes or buckled during the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, knocking hundreds of thousands of volumes to the floor.

With Hurricane Katrina and the centennial anniversary of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake prominent in the minds of many, the Faculty Senate spent a good portion of its meeting Thursday hearing a report on the university's emergency management plan.

The senate requested the report at one of its first meetings of the academic year after witnessing the temporary closure of several universities on the Gulf Coast due to Hurricane Katrina. Larry Gibbs, associate vice provost for environmental health and safety, delivered the report that focused on the university's plan and its gaps.

The challenges of creating an emergency management plan for an institution as large as Stanford are many, the report said, partly because the campus houses students and faculty on its premises, as well as research laboratories where chemicals, biological agents and other hazardous materials are used. Earthquakes pose one of the bigger dangers to the university, in addition to terrorist acts, infectious disease outbreaks, fires or firestorms, and infrastructure failures, the report said.

Earthquake preparedness has been a factor in new construction and emergency plans since the 1906 earthquake caused significant damage to more than a third of buildings on campus. The 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake helped push university officials to develop a more comprehensive emergency management plan led by the Department of Public Safety. Although many important seismic-retrofit and building-strengthening projects were initiated soon after, the department experienced some difficulty engaging academic departments in productive emergency planning sessions and interest in emergency planning eventually declined, according to the report.

The issue of emergency planning again got a lot of attention in the aftermath of the 1994 Northridge earthquake, which caused significant disruptions to several universities in Southern California. Stanford officials then shifted responsibility for emergency planning to the Department of Environmental Health and Safety, which works closely with all academic and operational units.

Over the years, a plan based on the core concept of an "all hazards" approach to emergency management was developed involving four phases: mitigation, preparedness, response and recovery. The "flexible" plan would eventually take into consideration the threats from terrorism and issues of public health.

All departments have plans in place that attempt to mitigate potential disasters, as well as plans or preparations to save lives and help response-and-rescue operations. Considerable resources have been spent to retrofit buildings on campus for seismic safety, Gibbs said, which is part of the mitigation plan. Although the university has its own power plant, power could easily be lost in an earthquake or other incident, prompting officials to put emergency generators at some critical buildings across campus that either provide housing, support important research or are of otherwise high value, Gibbs said. A program to provide sprinkler systems in all undergraduate housing also has been completed, he noted.

Most buildings on campus have plans for nonstructural risk mitigation, he said, which typically involves bracing moveable objects and securing hazardous materials. There is still considerable work to be done in this area, he said, urging faculty to consider the kind of damage that could be caused to their offices or research spaces due to lack of mitigation.

"If you look at it individually and say, 'If one of these things happened in my area, what would be the impact to either me personally or the area or my program or my teaching or my research?'" Gibbs said. "What would prevent you from getting back into your business of either teaching in the classroom or conducting research, or both?"

For the response portion of the emergency plan, an emergency operations center and a 45-member emergency management team made up of administrators and staff from various parts of the university were created to handle major incidents. Additionally, every building on campus was assigned an assembly point outside where occupants are supposed to gather during an emergency.

There are three levels of incident severity in the plan. Level one is classified as a minor, localized department or building incident that can be handled with university resources or limited outside help. A level-two incident would be a major emergency that disrupts a sizable portion of campus and would involve a Situation Triage and Assessment Team (STAT) made up of several representatives from various departments throughout the university who would quickly assess the situation, assign university resources as needed and call for outside help if needed. The team also could elevate the incident to level three, which is considered a campuswide emergency that may also involve the outside community. Normal university operations may be suspended in a level-three incident, according to the report.

Twenty-five satellite operations centers also have been established around campus to serve as communications links to the emergency operations center during a major emergency or disaster. Each of the centers has designated personnel who have been trained for emergencies, and all have detailed plans that address preparedness, response and business recovery. Gibbs encouraged all faculty and staff to be aware of their satellite operations centers. "It's something that as a faculty member, I'd encourage you to go back to your school and ask, 'Where is our satellite operations center? What is it? What does it consist of?'" he said.

The report also identified a number of vulnerabilities with the university's emergency management plan and recommended the following: a dedicated emergency operations center instead of the current plan, which calls for using the Faculty Club, because an emergency center takes around four hours to set up there; a campuswide hazard assessment and business impact analysis to truly understand the risks, so that mitigation strategies can be developed; an integrated technology strategy for all systems on campus, such as Information Technology Systems and Services and Academic Computing; teams of volunteers to help support emergency efforts; better data backup plans; and an on-site disaster medical plan, because the university's hospitals would be used as regional medical centers in the case of an emergency.

Overall, Gibbs praised the status of the program as one that has mitigated several risk factors, but he said there is still room for improvement and a need to be vigilant about emergency preparedness, especially in light of the lessons of Hurricane Katrina.

"The Gulf Coast disaster, we've learned a lot from that," Gibbs said. "Communications was one of the key lessons—the ability to communicate, the ability to find people. One of the things that was very important was also the severity of that disaster, the personal impact to individuals that were subject to and also those that were responding to the disaster."