More than 1 in 4 Schools, Colleges ‘Not Prepared at All’ for a Nuclear Disaster

In part one of this series, CS poll shows that many educational facilities are not ready for a radiological event, but about half of survey participants believe their overall emergency plans are sufficient.

Although the impacts of the March 11 earthquake, tsunami and radiological disaster in northern Japan have yet to be determined, the preliminary figures are daunting. According to Reuters, as of today, more than 9,000 people have been confirmed dead and greater than 16,000 are reported missing. More than 250,000 people remain in shelters, and the 12-mile area surrounding the crippled Fukushima nuclear power plant has been evacuated. Nearly 15,000 buildings were completely destroyed, and the total cost of this mega event could be as high as $309 billion, making it the world’s most expensive disaster on record.

Such awesome numbers beg the question: Are campuses prepared? To find out, Campus Safety conducted an online emergency preparedness poll of its school, university and hospital readers. Part one of this two-part series focuses on college and K-12 campus preparedness.

Preparedness Levels Vary Widely

According to results from CS’ emergency preparedness survey, a whopping 31 percent of university respondents and 24 percent of K-12 respondents rate their institutions as not prepared at all for a nuclear disaster. Seventeen percent of universities and 20 percent of K-12s rate their campuses as slightly prepared.

Overall, however, the results are more positive. Nearly half of university respondents (45 percent) and 52 percent of K-12 school respondents believe their emergency preparedness plans are sufficient. Forty three percent of university and 37 percent of K-12 school survey takers say their plans need minor or moderate revisions.

The most disturbing statistic uncovered by the survey was that eight percent of university respondents claim their emergency plans are completely inadequate and require major revisions, but their institutions aren’t reviewing them to make changes. Six percent of K-12 respondents say their plans are completely inadequate, but two-thirds of these respondents say they are revisiting them or plan on revising them. That leaves two percent of K-12 respondents who say their institutions aren’t doing anything about the sorry state of their emergency preparedness plans.

Should You Plan for Unlikely Events?

A third of university respondents and 31 percent of K-12 respondents say their campuses are only slightly prepared or not prepared at all for a major earthquake. This statistic, however, might reflect the fact that campuses usually focus their attention on disasters that will most likely occur. Institutions can only do so much to prepare for unlikely events, particularly when resources are limited.

For example, Washington State University (WSU), which is located in Pullman, Wash., does not have a history of earthquakes, but it does experience severe weather quite often. Also, because it is located in an agricultural area, chemicals being transported on train cars pose a significant risk. WSU’s plans reflect these realities.

“There is no sense in reacting to hazards you don’t have,” says WSU Emergency Management Coordinator Christopher Tapfer. That said, the Japan disaster has prompted his institution to meet with geology experts so they can provide a briefing on the potential risks. The school also has more general plans for events, like earthquakes, that are less likely to occur in the area of WSU’s main campus.

In contrast to WSU, the University of California, Berkeley (UC Berkeley) is located in an area with a long history of seismic activity.

“Earthquakes are always our No. 1 potential credible event that we plan for, so I think we are pretty up on earthquake planning, but we can always learn,” says Steve Stoll who is the director of the Office of Emergency Preparedness and Homeland Security for the UC Berkeley Police Department.

On the K-12 side of things, California appears to be stalling in its efforts to retrofit older school facilities. According to the Washington Post, the state has identified dozens of buildings in danger of collapse during a strong earthquake, but most continue to be used with no plans for retrofitting.

Disasters Often Trigger Other Disasters

The tragedy in Japan highlights another disturbing fact: when an earthquake – or any significant disaster for that matter – occurs, there is the potential for it to lead to other problems. The March 11 earthquake, for example triggered a huge tsunami that crippled the nearby nuclear power plant. Prince William Hospital Public Safety Manager John Williams believes campuses need to make sure their emergency management plans and policies encompass these types of multi-event catastrophes.

“Most plans are written for a single disaster,” he says. “We need to start thinking about multi-disaster events. [For example,] a flood could take out your treatment plant, so your water plant can’t pump or treat water.”

UC Berkeley has been incorporating the multi-disaster approach for quite some time.

“To me, an earthquake, which is a terrible situation in itself, is an initiator because of all the other events that happen – the fires, the explosions, the building collapses – there are so many things that happen after an earthquake that you have to be prepared for,” says Stoll.

Campuses Better Prepared for Chemical Events

Other events that could stem from a mega disaster are chemical and biological disasters. In general both K-12 and university respondents to CS’ emergency preparedness survey are more confident that their campuses could respond appropriately.

Two-thirds of university survey takers (66 percent) and 62 percent of K-12 respondents say their institutions are well prepared or somewhat prepared for a chemical emergency. Sixty-four percent of college respondents and 58 percent of K-12 survey participants say their campuses are well prepared or somewhat prepared for a biological event. Of course, that leaves 40 percent of schools that are not prepared at all or are only slightly prepared.

When Gary L. Sigrist Jr., who is the REMS grant project director for the Southwestern City School District, first heard about the events happening in Japan, he wasn’t too worried about an earthquake occurring in his central Ohio district. Instead, he looked at it from an all-hazards standpoint.

“What if something of any magnitude hits our district?” he asked himself. “Are we prepared? What if the incident happens during the school day? If it’s a biological or chemical event, do our guys know how to shut down the air units? What are we doing if students have to stay overnight or beyond the normal dismissal time? Can we feed them? Do we need power to feed the students, or are there things we can feed them cold? Are our staff members trained because the cooks have already gone home? How are we going to communicate with the parents and district? What if cell phones don’t work and land lines are down? Do we have a back-up system we can use?”

Although the chances of a mega-event occurring at or near your particular campus are remote, they still do happen. Tapfer recommends campuses take a detailed look at their local hazards.

“If you haven’t established a hazards inventory and vulnerability assessment,” he says, “do one.”

View the PDF charts< /p>

K-12 Levels of Preparedness

University Levels of Preparedness

View the photo gallery

See part two, which features our survey results on hospital emergency preparedness


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Photo via Flickr, Officia U.S. Navy Imagery

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