Living on the edge is a way of life for UC Berkeley’s emergency response team — it has to be, when your campus is situated directly on the edge of a fault line that scientists have called a “tectonic time bomb.”
The Hayward Fault — which bisects California Memorial Stadium through its endzones — has a 31 percent chance of having a magnitude 6.7 or greater earthquake in the next 30 years, scientists say. So it’s not a matter of wondering if the “Big One” will hit, but where, for scientists say there is a 99 percent probability of an earthquake of such magnitude rattling California in the next 30 years.
UC Berkeley began preparing for such a disaster in 2012 by developing a response plan, now entering its second year of implementation. A power outage and explosion Sept. 30 served as a test for campus administrators, revealing strengths and weaknesses in the nascent plan.
Earlier this month, the campus released a 13-page after-action report — later requested by other universities, including UCLA, and the city of Berkeley — documenting areas of success and failure in the campus’s response to the incident.
“Thankfully, bad things don’t happen every day, so when an emergency does happen we want to learn as much as we can,” said Amina Assefa, manager of the Office of Emergency Management. “Unfortunately, it happened to us, so we want to learn as much as we can.”
Following the explosion, emergency responders looked at the ongoing five-year emergency management strategic plan in a new light.
The plan, originally developed by the OEM, was conceived to coordinate a strategy for campuswide response to an emergency situation and bring the campus in line with widely used standards set by the National Fire Protection Association. It consists of about three dozen strategic initiatives aimed at enhancing UC Berkeley’s ability to respond to and recover from emergencies and disasters.
Should the Big One or a similar emergency strike the campus, the UC Berkeley Emergency Operations Plan could be activated by either the chancellor, the vice chancellor for administration or the UCPD chief. The crisis management team, consisting of senior administrators, would make all significant policy decisions and has ultimate responsibility for activation, oversight and termination of emergency response protocol.
While the OEM classifies emergencies as “incidents that threaten human life, safety, health, property or the environment,” earthquakes are the main type of event for which the campus is preparing.
“The reality is the biggest that’s going to happen is that earthquake on the Hayward Fault,” Assefa said. “It would activate everything on the campus — everything would come into play.”
Since it began implementing the plan last year, the OEM changed the location of the Emergency Operations Center — the centralized facility where staff members gather to assume emergency response roles — from Barrows Hall to Warren Hall at the northwest corner of campus, a seismically safer location rated “good” by the campus as of July 2011. Emergency power was installed in the conference room, along with computers, televisions and maps.
“That’s coming a long way from where we were — we didn’t have dedicated computers, and it was in a basement of a building that was rated for evacuation,” Assefa said. “If you weren’t supposed to go back into the building, would you want to be in the basement? Probably not.”
According to the website of UC Berkeley’s SAFER program, implemented to address structurally unsafe buildings on campus, work has been completed or initiated as of early 2009 on 72 percent of the square footage identified in 1997 as needing seismic improvement.
“We’ve come a long way in making the campus a lot safer in the event of an earthquake,” said Christine Shaff, communications director for the campus’s Facilities Services.
The campus is also working with the Residential and Student Service Programs to create a campus stockpile of food and water to sustain about 20,000 people for three days, based on a major earthquake scenario with the entire campus shutting down and people unable to go home.
However, Assefa said the main challenge is finding an appropriate location for the stockpile, due to the lack of space on campus and already limited space in parking garages in Berkeley, where emergency stockpiles are often stored.
The other initiatives of the plan include developing awareness about disaster preparedness, facilitating communication through the campus alert system WarnMe and conducting required training and drills within the campus community.
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In the wake of the explosion, the OEM has seen an increase in interest across campus from students, faculty and staff about emergency preparedness. Assefa said more people were reaching out to her office to find out what they could do.
“We like that people are interested in what we’re doing,” Assefa said. “The power outage helped us gauge how far we had come, and we had come pretty far. But it also helped us understand what else we need to work on.”
The student group American Red Cross at Cal worked with the OEM to co-host an emergency preparedness event following the statewide earthquake drill on campus last October.
The club also offers disaster preparedness courses to interested student organizations free of charge, training students to make emergency response plans, prepare emergency kits and perform compression-only CPR.
“It’s really important that students have disaster preparedness training at Berkeley,” said the club’s president, Michelle Carney. “So many don’t associate Berkeley as a home and that they actually need to be disaster prepared.”
Pamela Cameron, associate director of public health, quality improvement and specialty services at the Tang Center, emphasized the importance of the students, faculty and staff taking responsibility of their safety and not relying on the campus response.
The OEM encourages students to keep a portable emergency kit, or “go bag,” containing food, water and important supplies to strengthen emergency preparedness.
“If you think of a campus with 35,000 students and 20,000 staff, we have to individually get prepared,” Assefa said. “We have as our mission to help educate the students in terms of understanding how they can take care of themselves during an emergency. That’s important to us because we want them to keep themselves as safe as possible.”