Planning for disaster a challenging task on complacent campus

April 01, 2004, vol. 29, no. 7
By Julie Ovenell-Carter



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Thanks largely to the motivational efforts of emergency planner Teresa Sharp, disaster planning at SFU is taking off like…well, like wildfire.

“It's a bit of a challenge trying to get people enthused about preparing themselves for a disaster,” concedes Sharp, who two years ago took on the task of developing an emergency response and recovery plan for the university.

“I really wasn't prepared for how much of a sales job it was going to be. Nobody ever thinks it's going to happen to them.”

It was 10 years ago, after a major earthquake devastated the University of California's Northridge campus, that the university administration began to focus on how SFU would respond to, and recover from, a similar disaster.

“There were a few changes made, new systems put in place and an emergency operations centre (EOC) built in the Maggie Benston centre, but for a long time there was no unified effort,” says Sharp.

Shortly after the Sept. 11 attacks, Pat Hibbitts, SFU's newly appointed VP-finance and administration, assigned Sharp - then an administrative assistant with a lifelong interest in disaster response and recovery - to prepare a report on the state of the university's emergency preparedness. Sharp's verdict: “There was a lot of work to be done.”

Last fall, SFU's board of governor's unanimously approved Sharp's emergency plan for the university. After researching the options, Sharp had proposed that SFU follow the structure of the B.C. emergency response management system (BCERMS).

BCERMS is a provincially sanctioned emergency plan that sets out, as Sharp observes, “a common language and common procedures so that anyone with the appropriate training can walk into an emergency operations centre and pick up the reins.” (The BCERMS model was most recently tested during last summer's forest fires.)

With considerable persistence and charm, Sharp managed to assemble an EOC management team comprised of 35 SFU staff and faculty whose professional skills will be the most critical during an emergency.

“In a full-on crisis, we will need communications experts, financial experts, facilities experts and security experts, to name just a few,” observes Sharp.

The team met for the first time last February for a BCERMS orientation session. Their on-going instruction, offered under the auspices of the Justice Institute of B.C., will continue through the spring and summer, and will include tabletop exercises and eventually, full-scale disaster simulations, so team members can practice their coordinated response skills.

While Sharp is pleased by the university's full-steam-ahead commitment to emergency planning, she worries that the campus community may not be taking its share of responsibility at the individual level.

“Access will be a major issue in a disaster,” she notes. “When the big one comes, the question will not be whether Burnaby Mountain will be cut off, but for how long.”

She urges everyone living and working at SFU to purchase a “grab and go” emergency kit that includes three days of food and water rations, light sticks, a foil blanket and other necessities. They are available from central stores or the bookstore for $34.17.

For more information about SFU's emergency program, visit: www.sfu.ca/human-resources/index.htm.

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