August 20, 2019 | 81° F

Sandy report reveals flaws in Rutgers emergency procedures

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Rutgers released its Emergency Preparedness Task Force Report last week, providing extensive details and recommendations on how the University can improve its emergency preparedness in the wake of a disaster. Only 170 pages of the 275-page document were made public, with Rutgers citing safety measures.

In the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, Rutgers evacuated more than 6,000 students from Cook, Douglass and the College Avenue campuses.

Rutgers, along with the Red Cross, provided shelter to about 1,200 people. About 900 were from Atlantic County and around 230 from Middlesex County’s surrounding shore communities, according to an article previously published by The Daily Targum.

Last week, The Daily Targum and several other news organizations received a redacted version of Rutgers’ Emergency Preparedness Task Force Report through the Open Public Records Act.

Only 170 pages of the 275-page document were released, and some sections are redacted with Rutgers citing security reasons.

The report, completed in March by a Rutgers-appointed task force, presents multiple recommendations to help the University prepare for another disaster.

The task force highlighted weak communications, lack of backup power and a lack of business continuity and contingency plans in the event of an emergency as critical issues in Rutgers’ emergency system.

Sandy also revealed critical failures in support and sustainability of research at Rutgers. The report said Rutgers lost power to freezers, experiments and laboratories, and in the process, many research projects were “compromised.”

“Those in the STEM fields also need continuous, uninterruptible power supplies to support animal research, ongoing experiments, and the storage of critically important samples,” the report said. “Without the assurances that we can provide continuous power for STEM research projects, Rutgers will jeopardize its ability to garner competitive federal grant support.”

A lack of backup power and proper communication largely led to the failure in safeguarding research during Sandy.

The report said some employees who were evacuated from their homes came to Rutgers only to find their buildings closed with no notification on the main Rutgers website.

“These building closures were never communicated to employees who are, generally, advised to visit the homepage to view campus operating status,” the report said. “At the same time, Rutgers Utilities had the buildings that were without power listed on their website.”

Power failure and the lack of backup power affected the ability of researchers to sustain experiments and laboratories as well, according to the report.

“Preserving and protecting the animals and ensuring that they are safe at appropriate temperatures is absolutely essential,” the report said. “Back-up power is also needed to preserve critical biological samples, hazardous chemicals, and for the continuation of longitudinal research projects. Without back-up power, years of research work can be lost.”

The report included survey responses from researchers and how the hurricane affected their lab work.

“I didn’t lose anything from the storm but a prolonged power outage would be devastating to my animal colony, which is in my laboratory in Psychology,” according to one of the survey responses. “These mice are genetically engineered and irreplaceable. Please provide backup support for these facilities.”

Another response stated how some biochemical and molecular biology reagents, radioactive isotopes and lipid reagents were lost or compromised.

“In some cases a commercial yeast mutant collection with 4,800 strains was compromised, another dating back 35 years was compromised. Several purified enzyme preparations were lost, some date back to 1983,” the report said.

The inability to safeguard research directly affects Rutgers’ ability to receive competitive federal grant support, the report said.

The most oft-mentioned problem the report cited was Rutgers’ ability to get up-to-date and accurate information across the board for students and faculty.

“Communications failed in ways none of us expected them to fail. We went through back-up system after backup system,” said President Robert L. Barchi at a University Senate meeting in September. “We were down to carrier pigeons, which in the wind didn’t work so well either.”

Of the 1,258 faculty and staff who responded to the survey, 38 percent said they thought they were notified about the campus’s operating status in a reasonable amount of time, but almost 40 percent did not find the notification as timely.

Of the 1,149 students who responded to the survey, 59 percent agreed they were notified within a reasonable timeframe, but 26 percent disagreed.

“Some complained that they wished decisions could have been made earlier, even days earlier,” the report said. “Given the evolution of the storm and its extraordinary impact both on- and off-campus, it is unclear how good decisions regarding closings could have been made any sooner.”

As 52 percent of evacuated students rated the evacuation as poor or very poor, the report stated clear procedures for communications concerning the evacuation of residence halls need to be developed and implemented for future emergencies.

The report outlined five primary points for improvement in Rutgers’ emergency management: Improving communication, using alternate sources of information, campus closing, backup power and advance preparation.

To improve communication, the report recommends making messages across the University consistent, without leaving communication to individual departments.

The University is also looking to make better use of a text message system and increase the use of social media as alternate sources of information. The report stated the University should make decisions to close campus in advance of disasters and develop emergency telecommuting policies.

“Refrigerators and freezers must be supported so research samples are not lost,” the report said about backup power. “Have backup servers and support for email systems. Priority for all animal facilities. Have generators in place before the storm and test them.”

For advance preparation, the report recommends Rutgers upgrade mechanical and electrical systems in aging buildings, ensure individual department emergency plans as well as checking the status of buildings to let people know if they can return.

In terms of business continuity, the report stated all departments should review and develop business continuity plans to address continuity of service, including prioritizing critical services.

“The efforts of this Task Force will help to develop a unified approach to dealing with future events by identifying flaws in systems, policies, and information sharing procedures,” the report said.

By Julian Chokkattu

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