Because One Day the Emergency Will Be Real...

A severe earthquake hit the Southern California campus of California State Polytechnic University in Pomona (Cal Poly Pomona) on January 12, 2000. The earthquake was quickly followed by a devastating fire. The fire department used the campus’s water reserves to fight the fire, leaving the university without water for the 1,300 students who live on campus and rely on the Los Olivos Dining Commons for all of their meals. Cal Poly Pomona’s president, Bob Suzuki, and his cabinet activated a level three emergency. Thanks to prior planning and disaster policies of the University Housing Services Emergency Preparedness Council, the Cal Poly Pomona Foundation, Inc., Dining Services staff at Los Olivos still served a balanced lunch.

This Is Only a Drill

The above disaster was actually a drill called Eat, Drink & Be Prepared. Lunch was served under disaster-like conditions at Los Olivos Dining Commons to educate the campus constituency about emergency preparedness. “Preparing the lunch menu without water helped us to develop our skills and prepare us for a real emergency,” says Board Operations Manager Annette Pettit.

“Cal Poly is to be commended for their foresight,” remarks Kerry R. Baum, emergency preparedness coordinator for Brigham Young University. “More universities should be involved in developing emergency programs, plans and procedures, followed by testing through exercises. It is only logical to test and practice emergency procedures to prove their viability.”

Planning the Event

There are several key factors to consider when planning a disaster drill.

1. Starting the planning process early is a key factor to creating a successful event. Every two weeks at Cal Poly Pomona the campus and housing committees meet to discuss disaster planning. Last year they promoted a similar, though smaller, type of affair. They decided they wanted to expand on that original idea and hold an event with suppliers, purveyors and resources for disaster management. The committee began brain-storming last October. By late November, heavy-duty planning for the fair took over the biweekly meetings.

2. To have a successful event, people must attend the exercise. The more people who hear about the project, the more people will show up. Use interesting posters and invitations to spark interest in your intended guests. About 900 students, faculty, staff, firemen and campus police participated in the Cal Poly disaster fair. Pettit credits the overwhelming response to the university’s Marketing Department. An invitation that sounds like a fire truck when opened was one item created to promote the fair. Invitations with light sticks attached were also hung on doorknobs throughout the campus.

3. While cost is always a factor, a disaster exercise doesn’t have to break the budget. “Many organizations do not exercise because of the potential costs involved,” says Baum. “However, we have found that by using in-house resources and taking advantage of outside agencies’ training time, such as local fire and police departments and area hospitals, we can conduct effective exercises with minimal costs.”

4. Many might think this type of drill beyond their capabilities. Pettit claims this is never the case. “Many dining halls already know how to prepare for a food fair. So, take that knowledge and expand it to simulate a disaster experience,” she says. “Create your own scenario and run with it. The community really appreciates the effort, and the project educates the campus about what to do in case of a real emergency.”

Setting the Stage

Though disaster exercises teach valuable lessons in crisis management, there’s no reason that they have to be dull. To enhance the realism of their event, Los Olivos staff members and campus building marshals wore bright orange vests and hard hats. Several “nonlife-threatening injury victims” were eating and walking around thanks to the application of moulage make-up. “The university’s idea to use theater department personnel is excellent,” says Baum. “The theater department is a wonderful resource for both make-up and actors. This can often be combined with student assignments, keeping the cost of exercises low.”

Including outside agencies in the exercise is another way to expand on the realism of the event. As part of the education process, organizations including the American Red Cross, GNA Fire Protection and SOS Survival Products were present to showcase emergency products and provide information to diners. Members of the Los Angeles County Fire Department Stations 187 and 146 were on hand, as well as Battalion 19 Chief Jack Runolfa. The Pepsi-Cola Company made an “emergency delivery” of bottled water and canned soda. “Pepsi has an agreement with us to provide such assistance in the event of a real disaster,” says Nancy Levandowski, director of Dining Services for the Cal Poly Pomona Foundation.

It All Works Out In the End

Thanks to the extraordinary planning efforts, the disaster fair went off without a hitch. “I think the concept of the Cal Poly exercise was excellent,” says Baum. “It involved many students and provided training not only for a critical portion of the campus community, but also for organizations that would be called upon to support Cal Poly in the event of a disaster.”

Pettit thanks the many departments of the campus that lent a helping hand for the success of the project. “The campus networking was impressive. The Farm Store donated oranges, the Theater Department donated the make-up, and campus firemen and police worked closely with the project to make it as realistic as possible,” she says. “The fair really tested the team for disaster preparedness and enabled them to better get to know the disaster resources available to them.”

About the Author

Danielle Przyborowski is a Dayton, Ohio-based freelance writer with experience in educational and architectural topics.

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