University’s earthquake plan tested, but still ready to adapt

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After the 1994 Northridge earthquake shook the San Fernando Valley and damaged much of the CSUN campus, the university went through numerous improvements to make sure it is more prepared for the next time disaster strikes.

“We are probably more experienced than any other university in the nation,” said Tom Brown, director of Physical Plant Management.

The firsthand experiences from the 1994 earthquake are what Brown considers the most valuable advantage CSUN has compared with other schools.

“It was a learning lesson for a lot of folks, including all the design structural engineers that had perceptions of how large buildings would perform,” Brown said.

The most evident malfunction in the engineering before the earthquake was that some of building designs were flawed, Brown said.

The buildings were intended to flex and move during an earthquake, but instead the elements failed during the movement of the 6.7-magnitude earthquake, according to Brown.

“What they do now is to design in failure points so that a specific area will fail and it won’t be a catastrophic failure,” he said.

There will be shattered glass and other broken components during an earthquake, but no campus buildings are going to collapse completely, Brown said.

The windows on campus have become more “disaster friendly.” They are made out of tempered glass, which is designed to break into small marble sized beads, much like the windshield of a car. The glass will not fall down in large pieces from buildings and cut students, Brown said.

In the event of a disaster, the PPM building on Etiwanda Avenue and Halsted Street becomes the Emergency Operations Center. The center’s support staff, led by CSUN Chief of Police Anne Glavin, would respond and start to gather data and assign duties.

The primary goal is to set up a plan for the first few hours after the disaster takes place. The plan is in accordance with the California State Emergency Management System, or SEMS, a system that unites all CSUs in terms of how they respond to emergency situations, said Kit Espinosa, emergency preparedness coordinator at CSUN.

SEMS has to be reviewed or updated at least once every year because of Executive Order No. 921, an order that delegates to each CSU president the implementation of an emergency management system.

“You’re not trying to figure out what to do for the next month on day one of the disaster,” Glavin said. “You’re worrying about the first 12-hour, 24-hour period, and that’s it.”

The first hour after a disaster is called the Golden Hour because it is the most crucial time after a disaster when people might be hurt and in need of help, said Benjamin Elisondo, manager of operations, safety and training for PPM.

“That first hour is basically where we need to think about our response with where people are trapped in buildings or injured,” Elisondo said. “It’s critical to have a plan that will be able to address those concerns.”

Every building on campus has floor and building wardens. The wardens are responsible for ensuring that evacuations of buildings go smoothly by directing students and employees to the designated gathering area: Sierra Quad.

At that same time, several PPM staff members walk around campus and investigate the integrity of the structural system and infrastructure.

“They shut off gas mains and open circuits so that power doesn’t unexpectedly come back on and start electrical fires,” Brown said.

Repetition of emergency scenarios is another thing that keeps CSUN’s staff ready for unexpected disasters.

Every year PPM conducts Emergency Preparedness Month in April where different drills are scheduled around campus. Most of the university is only involved in the evacuations, but key EOC members also run tabletop exercises where they perform a mock drill and communicate with each other like they would during an actual emergency.

The last time CSUN had a full campus drill was in April 2003, Elisondo said.

“That time we did it in stages,” Brown said. “One day we did several buildings and whoever happened to be in that building was evacuated in this full emergency scenario.”

The short time it took to evacuate the buildings served as a testament to how well prepared CSUN is, Elisondo said. It took only six minutes to evacuate the buildings.

“With buildings like Sierra Hall and Jerome (Richfield Hall), that’s pretty impressive,” Elisondo said.

The main reason drills like that do not happen more frequently is because it disrupts the academic curriculum on campus, Brown said.

Brown said it is a necessary drill, but he acknowledges the fact that it can interfere with classes.

“It’s disruptive in terms of time and what everybody is here for, and that’s education,” Brown said.

In order to limit the academic inconveniences, PPM has to coordinate the drills with the president’s office and notify the deans and department chairs “so that professors don’t get blindsided by an evacuation,” Elisondo said.

Elisondo said the campus cannot handle the aftermath of a major earthquake by itself, but through a training program with the Los Angeles Fire Department, a group of 100 people from the university go through 17-and-a-half hours of emergency preparedness training to form its own Community Emergency Response Team.

“The fire department says that in a large community disaster, there is not enough of them to be able to respond to the entire community at once,” Elisondo said. “They figure the best way to do that is to train the community.”

If CSUN would be spared from damage in a disaster, Brown said the response team might be called on to help out elsewhere if there is an impacted area and if the L.A. Fire Department needed support. This plan is called the Mutual Aid Agreement.

No matter how well people know the protocol for how to act during a disaster, there are always things that can happen that cannot be foreseen, according to Brown. He said the biggest part of a good response is recognizing that the disaster is not necessarily going to follow the template.

“A big part of being prepared is recognizing that there will be unknown conditions that will come your way,” Brown said. “You practice just to keep your mind fresh on all the unique things that can happen.”

Johan Mengesha can be reached at web@sundial.csun.edu.