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University Gazette

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Emergency drill a success for all involved

When it comes to emergency drills, the adage “practice makes perfect” does not quite apply, as Chief Jeff McCracken, director of public safety, well knows.

But practice can make people optimally prepared, which was the point of the University’s Aug. 11 emergency drill on Manning Drive in which a tanker carrying hydrofluoric acid collided with a Point-to-Point transit bus.

Although there are infinite scenarios of possible danger, McCracken said following the drill, the procedures and decision-making process by which emergency personnel both on and off campus respond to these situations must be consistent and predictable.

For the broader University community, the drill served as a reminder of the critical role all faculty, staff and students must play in their own safety, McCracken explained.

“For everyone involved, the drill was a success,” he said. “We always want to improve our emergency response procedures and communications, and conducting an emergency drill helps pinpoint the things that worked well as well as the areas that can be improved. What we learn in a drill helps improve how we respond in an actual emergency.”

A key part of campus safety is the Alert Carolina communications system, which includes the emergency sirens placed on and near campus, updates on the Alert Carolina website, email messages to the campus community and text messages that are sent to text-capable cell phones registered by students, faculty and staff in the campus directory (see alertcarolina.unc.edu for additional information).

Everyone, from senior administrators to the newest Tar Heel students, needs to know what to do when they receive an Alert Carolina text message or hear the siren sound, McCracken said.

As in previous emergency exercises, this year’s drill confirmed the need for effective communication. In the age of social media, when misinformation can go viral in minutes, it is important to make sure information is sent to people who are in potential danger, with short, unambiguous instructions on what they need to do to remain safe, McCracken said.

In this week’s drill, for instance, the initial emergency message indicated that the campus sirens had been activated following a police report of a major chemical spill on campus. That information was intentionally sparse for several reasons, McCracken said.

At that moment, it was more important for people on campus to know how they should respond to remain safe than it was to know the details of what was going on, he explained. That is why the initial posting focused on three basic points:

The next communication reported more details about the accident, but again, emphasized the dangers. “This is an urgent, life-threatening situation,” the drill message read. “Remain in place. If you are not on campus, please shelter in place.”

As the emergency drill scenario unfolded, additional communications included information about suspending campus operations, details about moving people out of the affected area and injuries and fatalities that had occurred as part of the drill.

Around noon, the drill communications indicated that the situation was contained and the campus could expect the “all clear” soon.

No two emergencies are the same, but all fall under specific frameworks, McCracken said, and that is what makes practice for everyone involved vital.

Not only are emergency responders involved in an actual emergency situation, so are the University’s senior leaders as well as administrators who coordinate the logistics for the campus response, McCracken said.

The administrators work together on issues such as how and where to move faculty, staff and students in an evacuation situation; how to provide necessities including back-up power and shelter for people on a short- or long-term basis; the degree to which University operations should be suspended; and key information to be communicated to the campus and local communities and to students’ parents.

One of the advantages of working on a campus like Carolina’s, McCracken said, is that the expertise needed for almost any situation is at hand.

For example, in this year’s drill scenario, Mary Beth Koza, director of the Department of Environment, Health and Safety, was able to provide important information about the effects of hydrofluoric acid.

“The emergency responders on the scene, especially the Chapel Hill Fire Department hazardous materials team, were well versed in the proper protocol for containing hydrofluoric acid and handling exposure to it,” McCracken said, “but having someone with Mary Beth Koza’s knowledge on hand to aid in the broader campus response was invaluable.”

McCracken emphasized the importance of coordinating the campus response with that of outside agencies on both the city and county level – something that contributed to the success of the drill as well.

“We use these exercises to identify ways to become better prepared,” he said. “The exercise went very well, and I look forward to the detailed review by EnviroSafe, the independent group that conducted the drill, to help us identify areas in which we can improve.”