University response system vague in emergency

In the wake of a disaster as massive as the earthquake and tsunami that recently rocked Japan, students are now critiquing their own campus’s plans for emergency response.

San Francisco is no stranger to unpredictable plate tectonics: The unprecedented 1906 earthquake that ruptured the San Andres fault across 296 miles nearly destroyed San Francisco.

The “Great Earthquake” was estimated at between 7.7 and 8.3 in magnitude and claimed 498 lives within city limits. The recent 9.0 quake in Japan, considered to be the best prepared country in the world for an earthquake, has claimed more than 3,000 lives and caused an estimated $100 billion in economic damage — so far.

So how would SF State hold up in an unparalleled disaster like this?

“I don’t know,” said Gayle Orr-Smith, the University’s emergency coordinator. “I don’t know about a 9.0. There are situations that would overwhelm. You reach a point where it’s impossible to prepare for the unknown. That’s the reality.”

Although there may not exist a way to prepare for the unimaginable, SF State does have various lines of defense in the event of an emergency.

“Here we have a mass notification system,” said Orr-Smith. “Within two or three minutes, the whole campus would be notified about a disaster. Sirens would be sounded.”

SF State utilizes the National Incident Management System, or NIMS, a systematic, nationwide approach to incident management mandated by the Department of Homeland Security in the wake of September 11.

“It’s the framework,” said Orr-Smith. “It’s a way for the entire country to organize and mobilize so that emergency responders everywhere in the nation speak the same language.”

NIMS literature makes it clear that it is “not a response plan,” and that it is not situation-specific. When it comes to a physical response plan, SF State implements the voluminous, 77-page citywide emergency response plan.

Although rumors abound, many SF Sate students are not aware of the existence of an emergency plan for their campus.

“I’m sure they have some sort of plan, although I don’t know what it is,” said junior theater major Jonathan Riley. “I just don’t know about it.”

Despite unique challenges related to earthquake safety – such as the schools’ construction on soft sediment that could compromise the structural integrity of buildings on campus in the event of a quake – SF State follows guidelines issued for all California State Universities with no school-specific plan in place.

“The baseline for all planning is the same throughout the CSU system,” said Orr-Smith. “As state entities, we are required to maintain that level of consistency.”

Written by
Latest comment
  • Nice writeup. One problem SF State has is that it has to balance the need to inform students with students’ desire to not be bothered. For example, the response system is tested once a semester, and feedback has been mixed. I can certainly say though that I have seen a lot of discussion around how to better prepare the campus for these unimaginable levels of emergency, and so I foresee more in-depth solutions being put in place. Let’s all hope that it never comes to needing to use them though.