Disaster test to hit campus May 3
By Lawrence McMahen
Next Tuesday, May 3, you may notice people scurrying across the lawns and roads between Commerce, Law and the Diefenbaker Canada Centre, talking into walkie-talkies and looking concerned.
While they’ll be acting as if a devastating tornado has hit campus, there’s no cause for panic. They’re conducting a mock disaster session, to test the University’s emergency response measures and to help train key people so they’re better able to respond if and when a real disaster occurs.
It could happen. In 1987 a tornado killed 27 people in Edmonton. In 1998 an ice-storm caused major disruptions in Ontario and Quebec and cost $500 million. Five or six catastrophic events hit Canadians every year.
By the late-1990s the U of S decided it needed a formal plan to deal with possible disasters – everything from storms or floods to railway chemical spills or plane crashes. The Board of Governors passed a policy in 1999 and by early 2000 a detailed University Emergency Measures (UEM) Plan was in place.
UEM Co-ordinator Nowell Seaman says the policy and plan aim to help the University react quickly and effectively to a major emergency and restore its main operations as soon as possible.
That requires training, and since 2000, a number of sessions have been held with key senior administrators and University responders from departments including Campus Safety, Health, Safety & Environment, Facilities Management, Communications, Student Health, Student & Enrolment Services, and others. They’re instructed by former City of Saskatoon Emergency Measures Co-ordinator Don Litz, who now consults to the University.
Seaman says it’s now time to step up the training. Tuesday’s mock disaster will be what he calls “a command post exercise, not a full-scale field exercise”, so there won’t be any students or actors lying around pretending to be fatalities.
“It’s to test our communications systems in the event of a disaster. Communications is one of the most, if not the most critical components of an effective response to a major emergency or disaster.”
An operations centre will be set up in the Maintenance Building and a command post will be situated outdoors, near where the mock tornado hits. Everything from the telephone “fan-out” calling system to the mobile radios will be put to the test, Seaman says.
Saskatoon police, fire and 911 personnel will be included in the communications loop, and some officers may be on the scene.
It should take about three hours through the morning, then the participants will gather during lunch and in the afternoon for intensive debriefing.
Heightened co-ordination of the responders is one of the exercise’s main goals. “Training helps save time in a later real disaster,” Seaman says, “and that could make a difference” in terms of saving lives or helping the University return to normal operations.
The University’s Emergency Measures Plan addresses all imaginable steps needed if a serious emergency occurs – including how to initiate the plan, how to set up command and control centres, how to communicate among responders and to the news media and the public, how to evacuate various parts of campus, and even how to protect animals during emergencies.
“We want to be prepared,” Seaman says. He adds he would like to see a real, full-scale mock disaster, complete with ‘dead’ bodies, in the future as a further test of the U of S plan.