California Wildfires Highlight Importance of Preparedness


Three raging Southern California wildfires destroyed hundreds of homes and several hospital and university buildings Nov. 13-15. Olive View-UCLA Medical Center in Sylmar and Westmont College in Montecito were directly in the paths of two of the fires, and both campuses only had minutes to put into action their emergency response plans. Fortunately, although they sustained significant damage to their facilities, both successfully implemented their evacuation/shelter-in-place procedures and no one was injured.

Carla Niño, public information officer and assistant hospital administrator for Olive View-UCLA, and Tom Bauer, director of public safety for Westmont College, discuss how their institutions’ preparedness, appropriate allocation of resources and staff’s quick thinking helped their facilities survive the emergencies.

Generator Failure Causes Confusion at Olive View
The Sayre Fire in Sylmar started Nov. 14 at about 10:30 p.m. “Our emergency room (ER) staff saw on the hill about a mile from us this massive fire that was racing in our direction,” says Niño.  Immediately, they determined it would be best to evacuate as many patients as possible from the ER – either triage them home or get them into a hospital bed.  An assessment of all of the patients was conducted, and 18 neonatal ICU infants, five adults on ventilators and four patients in critical condition were transferred to neighboring hospitals. The remaining 185 patients sheltered in place.

By midnight, the fire was on campus and came within five yards of the ER door.  At about 1:45 a.m. on Nov. 15 the power went out, but the backup generators turned on in only a few seconds. Unfortunately, 45 minutes later, the backup generators failed, and the hospital was without power for three and a half hours. During the power outage, Olive View-UCLA’s phones, computers, lights and medication cabinets didn’t work.

Additionally, there was a lot of smoke inside the facility. At one point, staff considered evacuating the entire hospital. “Fortunately, the power came on almost at our deadline, so we didn’t have to evacuate,” says Niño. Although the cause of the generator failure is still being investigated, officials suspect a nonfunctional fuel pump might have been the problem.

Total damage from the fire included the childcare center, parts of the psychiatric recreation area, the coroner building, HR, the fitness center, 75 trailers containing records and $700,000 worth of computer equipment.  The entire area west of the nursing center was gutted, as was the adjacent residential trailer park, where approximately 500 mobile homes were destroyed.

Despite the damage and generator failure, Niño says the hospital and its staff performed remarkably well during the emergency. “We found ways to get the work done so no patients or staff were compromised,” she adds. Those efforts included hand-pumping ventilators, keeping patients calm, and getting patients down the stairs during the blackout.

Niño believes, however, that there is room for improvement. “We need a battery-powered way to communicate over our public address system to all staff,” she says. “We didn’t have good communications with other departments that were on the second floor, so staff were running up and down the stairs.”  At one point, hospital officials announced they were considering a full evacuation. Later, when they decided not to evacuate, they weren’t able to make an announcement that the evacuation was cancelled.

Westmont Community Shelters in Gym
A day earlier and several miles up the coast in Santa Barbara, Westmont College was experiencing its own fire crisis. The Tea Fire started at 5:45 p.m. on Nov. 13, and within a half hour, Westmont was being showered with embers. “We instituted our campus-wide evacuation program,” says Bauer. “We shelter in place here because of our proximity to the foothills, poor access on narrow two-lane roads and the fact that many of our students don’t have cars. We have prepared and drilled for many years to shelter in our gym.” As the blaze raged outside, about 300 individuals stayed in the shelter until noon the following day.

In total, 50 percent of the campus was burned, including six campus structures that were deemed total losses. Three campus buildings were damaged, and 14 faculty homes adjacent to the school were destroyed. Every building on campus sustained smoke damage. The initial cost estimate is $15 million.

Despite the damage, no one was injured during the emergency. Bauer credits the fact that Westmont had frequently practiced sheltering in place and had the necessary supplies ready, including food and water for three days, as well as cots and medical supplies. “When you are evacuating people in a crisis, they’re looking to the leadership to know what they are doing,” he says. “We didn’t get a whole lot of pushback because they had confidence we knew what we were doing.”

Bauer says quick thinking on the part of one of his officers was also extremely helpful. “When the fire broke out, the only officer on duty immediately recognized what she had,” he says. “She made a decision to get the evacuation started, notify the people who had to respond, and get the word out to some of our buildings that are isolated.”

Although Bauer is satisfied with how well his campus interfaced with responding agencies, the road blocks that were erected posed a problem for campus personnel who needed to get back to Westmont to help with the response. Some were left at the road blocks for hours. “There doesn’t seem to be an ID that really works to get us through the road blocks because the people manning them can be from anywhere,” he says. “They just don’t know, and when they are told to not let anyone through, they don’t let anyone through. I don’t blame the officer from Los Angeles who came 100 miles to help out. He doesn’t know what is the right ID.”

Another aspect of the disaster response that Bauer would have done differently is to not let the press into the shelter. Overall, however, Bauer is pleased with how Westmont handled the emergency. His advice to other campuses? Prepare and allocate the necessary resources. “You’ve got to have the medical, food and water in place,” he says. “You can’t run out into the fire and try to find food for your people. It needs to be ready to go.”

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