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Accidents Can Happen

Find out what precautions several research universities are taking to protect their campus communities from hazardous material spills, lab mishaps, and the more ominous possibilities of attack.

By Mike McNamee

Wondering why you didn’t see that incident on the national news? It was all a tabletop drill—a command-center exercise in emergency preparedness for BU. In the wake of September 11, authorities are going far beyond the 30-second radio bleats of emergency broadcasting to test their systems for responding to and containing a wide range of explosive, chemical, and biological threats.

Few institutions have more at stake in such preparedness than colleges and universities, especially when it comes to hazardous materials. After all, even the simplest undergraduate science lab has to contain dangerous biological materials and prepare for spills of acids or other hazardous chemicals. For research universities, with hundreds of scientific and medical laboratories scattered from one end of campus to another, the challenge of maintaining safety, preventing environmental damage, and coping with emergencies can become a full-time obsession.

“Controls for radiological materials have always been well established,” says Matt Finucane, director of environmental health and radiation safety at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia and current chair of the Campus Safety Health and Environmental Management Association. “But in the past 15 years, there’s been much more emphasis on controlling hazardous materials in the biological and chemical areas. And all three areas are getting a lot more attention since September 11.”

Little of the preparation has the drama of wailing sirens and rescue workers donning biohazard suits. For campus environmental health and safety offices, protecting students, faculty, and staff begins with steps as simple as maintaining ventilation systems and training housekeepers how to react when they find an unrecognizable substance mixed with the trash. Often, it seems like the worst minefield is the labyrinth of paperwork and regulations—federal, state, and city—that researchers and campus officials must tiptoe through. “The most important work is what you do upfront—credentialing your people and making sure you know what’s in your labs,” says Teresa Crocker, chief of police and director of security for the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta.

The payoff comes when an accident or mistake trips the campus response and a potential hazard is quickly controlled. In mid-March, a University of Vermont lab worker mistakenly poured mercaptoethanol— the odorous chemical that utilities mix with natural gas—down a drain. The smell of a deadly natural gas leak quickly spread through the medical research facility, recalls Mary Dewey, director of risk management for the Burlington institution. “The fire department evacuated the building, the University of Vermont police secured the facility, and all the departments— physical plant, environmental safety, and the College of Medicine—came together very quickly to identify the problem and remediate it,” Dewey says. “Our emergency response worked very well.”

At the Ready

For campus laboratories, safety and emergency preparedness must be built in. To house the new National Emerging Infectious Disease Laboratory, Boston University is drawing up plans for a Biosafety Level 4 facility, only the sixth such lab in the country. The center’s goal is to speed up research on the prevention, diagnoses, and treatment of West Nile virus, SARS, the Marburg virus, and other new and rapidly spreading diseases. For that, its systems must anticipate scenarios that resemble the plots of Michael Crichton novels. “We have to contain diseases that are very dangerous,” says Peter Schneider, BU’s director of environmental health and safety. “There are tons of questions about emergency preparedness that have to be dealt with at every stage.”

Few colleges or universities have to worry about keeping flesh-eating bacteria from invading the student body. But all research institutions need thorough planning to handle everything from routine maintenance to crisis incidents. Some of the key elements of preparedness:

  • Design. “If an incident happens in a lab, we want people to be able to leave and let the lab contain the problem,” says Penn’s Finucane. Research facilities are designed so that air flows in, not out; so that any vapors that are released are exhausted far from areas where students and staff work; and so that escape routes and safety gear are well-marked and clear.
  • Maintenance. Sound design and construction must be backed up with good maintenance. At Penn, all 1,100 fume hoods are inspected three times a year. And all housekeepers who work in lab areas get special training on recognizing and coping with hazardous materials. “If there’s just one new housekeeper, we will still run a training session,” says Finucane. “We give them a beeper number [for the environmental safety officer on duty] and tell them: ‘If you have any doubts about an object or substance, don’t pick it up. Just leave it and call us.’”
  • Paperwork. Campus procedures for dealing with chemical, biological, and radiological materials are largely dictated by overlapping and sometimes conflicting sets of federal, state, and local regulations. “Keeping all that straight is quite a chore for lab managers and faculty,” says Finucane. “The three classes of materials all have different rules for handling wastes. So you could have a researcher standing there with a piece of waste wondering, ‘Which of these sets of rules do I follow?’”

Streamlining those rules while maintaining safe practices is a top priority for campus researchers and environmental officers. Six organizations, including NACUBO, are working with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to clarify rules and focus enforcement on true hazards rather than paperwork violations. “EPA is receptive,” says Finucane, “but it’s difficult to get a regulation changed or even interpreted more favorably.”

In some areas, institutions are pursuing pilot programs to trim regulatory underbrush. The University of Vermont is in the fifth year of a three-university program that lets institutions devise their own protocols, with EPA approval, for managing materials and wastes. Under the old rules, “every lab technician would have to decide which wastes were hazardous and how to handle them,” says Dewey. “Now, a waste isn’t classified until it’s brought in for disposal, which means that fewer people with better training are making the decisions.”

Drills Done Right

Colleges and universities increasingly feel the need to put emergency response plans to the test. The typical exercise: a “tabletop drill” (think of those World War II movies where admirals and generals hover around a table-sized map covered with model ships and airplanes) that assembles key campus officials in a command center to deal with a simulated disaster. If your campus hasn’t stretched its crisis muscles lately, here are steps to consider to run such a drill.

  • Pick a hazard. Ideally, you’ve already assessed your campus for vulnerabilities—a railroad line where tankers could leak or explode, a power station where failure could black out a wide swath of campus, a transportation hub where a bomb could tie your campus in knots.
  • Enlist the outside world. To be realistic, you’ll want to involve all the key crisis managers, on campus or off. For a major exercise, you’ll need to coordinate with local police, fire, and rescue agencies—even nearby businesses. A drill based on a simulated tanker-car rupture forced Boston University to improve communication with regional CSX railroad managers.
  • Pick a time frame. Tell key personnel approximately when to expect a drill (e.g., the week of June 12). Reserve several blocks of time on administrators’ calendars. The element of surprise is important in a realistic drill.
  • Develop a script. A good crisis starts small and mushrooms as Murphy’s Law takes hold. Events should be scripted but responses should not. Keep a secret: Only a few key planners should know how events will unfold. A drill can last two hours to all day.
  • Be prepared for the media. Even if your drill is strictly internal, reporters who monitor emergency radio frequencies are likely to pick up signs of heightened activity. Make sure “first responders”—the campus news bureau and police dispatchers—are ready to explain there’s a drill underway. (The “TV crew” that invaded BU’s command center was led by a former TV reporter who now works for the university.)
  • Do a post mortem. A good drill will expose many weaknesses that you’ll want to assess and repair. In a long drill, you might even schedule periodic breaks in the action to review responses while they’re still fresh.
  • Share your ideas. Two groups work to pool the knowledge of campus safety experts: The Campus Safety Health and Environmental Management Association (www.cshema.org) and the Environmental Health & Safety Director’s Roundtable (http://roundtable.healthsafe.uab.edu).

Working Together

No matter how humdrum the routines of maintenance and paperwork, research institutions also have to be ready for real crises. Environmental and security officers have stepped up their level of preparations in recent years. Training reaches down to individual departments and buildings, with evacuation plans and hazardous material site plans readily accessible for campus or local emergency personnel.

To prepare for major emergencies, campuses are forming incident management teams, drawing leaders from departments across the campus to train and work together in advance of a crisis. “This is not something you can do in a month or two,” says Georgia Tech’s Crocker. “You sit down and take a lot of time to identify the possible problems and figure out how you’ll manage them.”

Large institutions are investing heavily in command centers, with backup power and redundant computer, telephone, and other communication systems. In most cases, they’re building two or more centers at widespread locations—or, in Georgia Tech’s case, experimenting with a mobile command post.

Coordination has to extend beyond the campus. Environmental and security officers work closely with city and state agencies— and even the federal Department of Homeland Security—to ensure full coverage of necessary skills and expertise, clear divisions of responsibilities, and open communication. “In large, decentralized institutions, everybody has to understand their own role, whether it’s campus public safety, environmental health and safety, or the city police and fire department,” says Finucane. Joint exercises help rehearse those roles and spotlight weaknesses that must be addressed.

Fortunately, most of these preparations have been used only in drills. The biggest recent hazardous materials incident at Georgia Tech, Crocker says, resulted from a spill when graduate students were transporting chemicals without proper containers. “It didn’t even require an evacuation,” she notes. “We just isolated the area and cleaned up.”

The Long Road to Recovery

The fire is out. Where do you go next?

That’s the question Peter Schneider is posing to Boston University’s academic and administrative departments. As BU’s director of environmental health and safety, Schneider is pushing deans and administrators to look at business continuity—the steps they must take to keep their operations functioning when disaster knocks their facilities out of commission.

BU’s tool is a Web-based template that lets each department assess its state of readiness and forces executives to think through their disaster recovery needs. The template starts with the basics: Do you have a list of home addresses and phone numbers for all personnel? Are your key records backed up? What computer and communication equipment do you need to function? It moves on to advanced planning with questions about each operation’s critical functions and how they can be sustained: Where will you relocate vital research projects? Can you find alternative classrooms? How much space does your office staff really require?

Deans and administrators aren’t eager to tackle these tough questions. “You have to pound pretty hard on most departments,” Schneider says. He’s found an ally in BU’s Office of Internal Audit, which is now demanding to see departments’ disaster plans when it does their annual reviews. He also tries to subtly publicize the outcomes of campus crises when planning is or isn’t complete. “The physics research building had a flood—a four-inch water line broke on the sixth floor and ran for two hours—and they didn’t even know how to work with the registrar to move their classes,” Schneider says. “On the other hand, the credit union had a fire and they were back in operation the next day, thanks to their plan.”

Most operations on BU’s medical campus have completed the template, so Schneider is moving his campaign onto the main campus. But there’s yet another level of planning he has to do: comparing the departmental blueprints to be sure that four offices aren’t trying to claim the same emergency space. The goal—a universitywide business continuity plan—is probably years away. But as BU’s credit-union customers can attest, the process is already paying off.

Taking No Chances

All this planning means that research institutions are increasingly prepared for the crisis phase of a hazardous-materials accident or attack. But BU’s Schneider frets that campuses aren’t looking at the next stage: emergency recovery and business continuity (see sidebar, “The Long Road to Recovery”). “It’s one thing to respond in the first 48 hours,” he says. “But what if you have a building or a section of your campus out of commission for months?” Institutions need to start thinking about backup facilities for critical educational, research, and administrative functions.

Extreme? No one can be sure. But in a post-September 11 world, no research institution wants to be caught short.

Author Bio Mike McNamee, Washington, D.C., covers higher education business issues for Business Officer.