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Will your department be ready in an emergency?

“That which doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” — Friedrich Nietzsche, “Twilight of the Idols.”

Chris Tapfer, emergency management coordinator for WSU’s Office of Business Affairs and associate director of University Recreation, believes this quotation to be true.

He remembers how the eruption of Mount St. Helens shut down the university in May 1980.

“It came as a complete surprise for the institution,” Tapfer said. “There was no forewarning, and nobody knew what to do.”

It was one of the few times in WSU’s history that the university had to close, and Tapfer thinks the closure could have been prevented with better emergency planning. Now, Facilities Operations has a plan to manage a similar incident.

“We learn lessons quick,” he said. “Next time Mount St. Helens blows, we’ll be prepared.”

Departments know best
Tapfer is in the process of solidifying WSU’s emergency response plan, an effort that is not easy due to the structural complexity and unique safety issues of a university. Some of WSU’s safety issues include hazardous research materials, aging buildings and caring for resident students.

Because each department within the university has safety issues specific to department activities, a universal emergency response plan will not work, Tapfer said. Instead, in order to best prepare for these issues, Tapfer relies on safety plans developed by the people who deal with the issues directly. Faculty and staff know hazards that are specific to their department better than anyone else.

“It’s a bottom-up, not top-down, movement,” Tapfer said. “It’s like a triangle — the base has to be good and solid. This allows for communication to move up the pipelines to the decision makers.”

Although university departments were first required to develop their own safety plans in 2002, not every department did.

“WSU has some catching up to do,” Tapfer said. “We’re helping people get back on track.”

By summer, Tapfer hopes to approach 100 percent compliance with the emergency plan. He has revised emergency planning guidelines to make them less daunting, as well as provided information and training sessions to make developing plans as easy as possible.

Five help sources
“Everyone’s a part of this,” Tapfer said of the staff and faculty who still need to develop a department emergency plan. “Emergency preparation isn’t someone else’s job; it’s part of their job.”

To help make that job easier, WSU’s has five emergency assistance departments that can be referred to when creating emergency response plans.

The five departments are:
• Public Safety, which includes the WSU police and fire safety;
• Facilities Operations, which is responsible for building and infrastructure issues;
• Information Technology, which is responsible for telephone and information systems communication, a necessary element for maintaining WSU operations;
• Radiation Safety, which focuses on the safety of radioactive materials used for research and medical purposes;

• Environmental Health and Safety, which deals with issues including water quality, proper food handling, hazardous materials and wastes and industrial safety.

Each of these departments has its own plans and procedures for managing crises pertaining to their specific area of emergency assistance. For major crises, the departments work together to ensure that safety needs are met in all arenas.

Risk varies by location
“We live in a pretty benign environment,” Tapfer said, referring to the Pullman campus. “But the little emergencies are important too, because they have a significant impact every year.”

Examples of “little emergencies” include minor fires, chemical spills, power outages and unidentified “white powder” incidents.

Although the Pullman campus rarely encounters major natural disasters, and can thus focus mostly on the “little emergencies,” other WSU campuses, research stations, extension offices and learning centers around the state are more prone to natural disasters. This is taken into consideration when developing emergency response plans for the various non-Pullman locations. For example, offices on the westside have the potential of suffering from earthquakes, so their plan puts more emphasis on earthquake response than the Pullman campus plan.

Tapfer learns which areas are vulnerable to which natural disasters through hazard mitigation planning, which assesses the potential of an area to sustain damage from a particular disaster. For example, if a building is located in a flood plain, hazard mitigation planning would look into how much potential damage the building could suffer from a flood. From there, actions are taken to lessen the risk, such as building dikes, raising the building or moving it entirely.

“Emergency planning and preparation is a form of risk management,” Tapfer said.

Tapfer thinks of himself as a coordinator, helping individual departments work on being safer so that, collectively, they can contribute to an altogether safe institution.

If Mount St. Helens erupts on Tapfer’s watch, WSU will be in good, safe hands.

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