Initial results suggest earthquake drill a success

Thousands across campus participated in an exercise designed to teach the university community what to do in an earthquake and how to account for faculty, staff and students in an emergency. Initial results suggest that the drill was a success, giving emergency managers needed information about how to communicate with the campus community should a crisis occur.

Jack Hubbard

Stanford and faculty, students and staff meet at their assembly points during an earthquake evacuation exercise Thursday.

Around 10:05 a.m. Thursday, most of us ducked under tables, desks and other sturdy furniture, covered ourselves, held on and then evacuated to assembly points – just as emergency managers hoped we would.

Among those participating in the university-wide earthquake drill Oct. 7 were President John Hennessy and Provost John Etchemendy, both of whom ducked under their desks as instructed.

Their actions – and those of thousands of faculty, staff and students – were part of a drill whose final results won't be known for weeks. But in the meantime, Keith Perry, emergency manager in the department of Environmental Health and Safety, said he was pleased with initial reports from the field suggesting that the campus community practiced the skills they will need if an earthquake actually strikes.

SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory also held an emergency drill. According to Kelen Tuttle, a writer in the SLAC Office of Communications, the drill there also began at 10:05 a.m., when building alarms sounded. SLAC practiced evacuating facilities, sweeping buildings and accounting for employees.

"This exercise was a success even before it started because of the amount of conversation it prompted throughout campus. People were talking about how they would respond," said Perry.

Etchemendy, who toured parts of campus during the drill, agreed.

"The main reason to have this drill is to help the many people who come here from all over and don't necessarily understand what those of us living in California know – things like 'don't stack things above your bed that could fall on your head,'" Etchemendy said.

"After this exercise, students in particular are more likely to read materials you give them about what to do in an emergency," he added.

Photos by L.A. Cicero Bob Schwarzwalder and Andrew Herkovic

At the Green Library evacuation point, CERT team members Bob Schwarzwalder and Andrew Herkovic coordinate efforts at the radio communications site.

Festive atmosphere

As the drill evolved, the atmosphere throughout campus, including the Main Quad and the Science and Engineering Quad, turned almost festive as faculty, staff and students streamed out of buildings and gathered at predetermined assembly points.

Brightly colored, hand-drawn signs held up by administrators indicated where departmental check-ins were located so faculty, staff and students could sign in and be accounted for. Administrators with clipboards checked off the names and locations of people in their areas.

In the meantime, a plane flew overhead, filming the campus scene in high-definition video. Emergency managers will use the images to estimate the number of evacuees and compare that number to data actually collected on the ground.

Communication challenges

But throughout campus, participants voiced concerns about the volume of the outdoor sirens designed to warn of an imminent danger. People inside buildings and in remote locations, such as the Row, said they couldn't hear the sirens.

That doesn't surprise Perry.

"That's why we use a multilayered communication system," said Perry. While the outdoor sirens signal an emergency to people outside buildings, the AlertSU system is designed to notify people inside through emails, texts and phone calls.

"But that's why you have this kind of drill," Perry added. "We're going to be looking at how effective the communication methods were and identifying where the gaps were."

In particular, Perry hopes people who were outside during the drill will visit the drill website and take a survey designed to determine how well the sirens could be heard.

During the drill, participants were able to quickly identify some of the communication challenges emergency managers face. For instance, students in an Italian 1 course in Building 30 taught by graduate student Marco Aresu could hear neither the outdoor sirens nor their cell phones.

"The siren sound was imperceptible," he said. And, Aresu, like many faculty members, asks students to either turn off or turn down their cell phones during class. As a result, it was Aresu's vibrating cell phone that alerted him to the beginning of the exercise. He and members of his class ducked under tables, evacuated and gathered in the Main Quad until the second siren sounded to mark the end of the drill.

Lecturer John Edmark with students

John Edmark, right, a lecturer in the Art Department, continued his class at the assembly point on Lasuen Mall.

But Aresu, who applauds the university for sponsoring the drill, said, "The sirens won't work for a class where everyone is supposed to be talking."

Accounting for students

Among the other challenges, as expected, was accounting for Stanford's approximately 16,000 students, who are far more difficult to track than faculty and staff. Deborah Golder, associate vice provost and dean of residential education, toured the undergraduate residences on a golf cart during the drill and was pleased to see students participating.

"I saw groups of 10, 20, 30 students gathered outside residences," she said. "And what surprised me most was that they waited to re-enter the building until the end of the drill."

In the Vice Provost for Student Affairs emergency operations center in Tresidder Union, staff members tested their ability to account for students by collecting data directly from residences and academic buildings.

"From our point of view, data collection at the access points worked well," said University Registrar Tom Black.

The data collection in residences also was successful, according to Lee Connor, senior administrative officer in student affairs. Of the 10,701 graduate and undergraduate students living on campus, about 9 percent were accounted for in headcounts taken in student residences.

If an academic building should have to be evacuated in an actual emergency, Black said he is confident his office can quickly determine which classes were scheduled for the building and which students were enrolled in those classes. More problematic will be those classes scheduled by departments and schools and outside the purview of the Registrar's Office.

The AlertSU system also prompted students to report their status, based on their location. Initially, of the 16,000 students who received the message, nearly 6,000 responded. Perry said 36 percent of those students were in residences, 25 percent in classrooms or labs, 12 percent elsewhere on campus and 26 percent off campus.

Some, unfortunately, misunderstood the directions and called the Department of Public Safety directly to report their whereabouts. The miscommunication temporarily overwhelmed the Public Safety telephone lines.

Testing social media

Also as part of the drill, Perry tested whether using social media outlets could help communicate an emergency and track the status of the campus community. Perry received assistance from Carnegie Mellon University's Silicon Valley Campus Disaster Management Initiative.

Tweets, which are short text messages shared via the social media outlet Twitter, were monitored by emergency managers using 10 different search terms, including, for instance, "Stanford drill." They found that Twitter "chatter" increased during the drill as people on campus shared their experience with friends. In a real emergency, that type of information could help emergency managers monitor the situation throughout campus.

Perry said his office also experimented by having 10 people take photographs with Android phones.