A Meeting with Disaster:
Emergencies and Extended Outages
Would you be prepared to be locked out of your office or lab for 40 days? MIT occupants at One Broadway, in Kendall Square, had that experience last winter. A transformer fire in the basement, which killed an NStar worker, shut down the building on December 8, 2006.
While the events of that day were extremely traumatic, from reports of the experiences of Sloan faculty and staff and of the OpenCourseWare staff who occupied E70 at the time, not having a comprehensive plan to recover and resume work was another critical anxiety that lasted for weeks. They were unprepared, for example, for the amount of work kept on paper that could not be retrieved from the building. Occupants also found it disconcerting to not have alternative working accommodations – space and equipment – immediately available because prior arrangements for such an extended outage were not made in advance. What the building occupants now wish they had known in advance of the disaster was: a) recovery assistance that the Institute could provide, and b) planning and disaster recovery activities that are the responsibility of the individual office or group.
The One Broadway experience occurred against a backdrop of a heightened sense of vulnerability following the events of September 11. Since 9/11, incidents like the library bombing at Yale University and the Virginia Tech shooting in April 2007 have only underscored the emergency planning challenges that are unique to the university setting.
These events, and their lessons learned, also underscore the fact that planning for a spectrum of emergencies – including extended outages – is a layered process, one that requires constant adaptation as research changes, technologies evolve, and the campus boundary shifts from discrete geographical locations to distance learning and fluid partnerships with universities abroad. What remains the same, however, is the need to ensure the safety and security of our campus community. After the Virginia Tech and other more recent campus shootings, MIT faculty asked for guidance about what to do should such an incident occur in their classroom. In the days following the Virginia Tech incident, the buzz at a faculty meeting and amongst the Institute leadership revolved around the status of the Institute’s own emergency communication plan, and the steps in place – or planned – to ensure timely, informative, and accurate alerts to the MIT community. At the heart of the communication plan is MIT’s emergency preparedness structure.
MIT’s Existing Emergency Preparedness Structure
The Environment, Health and Safety (EHS) Office is responsible for overseeing and for providing services to departments, labs, and centers on matters spanning environmental sustainability and occupational safety to chemical, radiation, and biological controls. In recent years EHS, working closely with partner offices such as the MIT Police Department and the Medical Department, has been increasing its focus on issues related to the Institute’s preparedness for extended outages – from localized outages that affect a single floor or building (like One Broadway) – to campus-wide disasters that might result from a hurricane, winter storm, or a pandemic illness. The emergency structure consists of multiple layers connecting the Institute leadership to individual laboratories and residence halls, and is at the heart of emergency planning, communication, response, and recovery efforts.
For many localized incidents, the Emergency Response Team, the EHS Management System network, and Emergency Preparedness Coordinators are sufficient to mitigate the situation. For larger-scale emergencies – recall the campus-wide power outage in 2004 and the campus-wide water outage in 2005 – response and resources across a broader section of campus must be marshaled. In these instances, an Emergency Operations Center (EOC), consisting of representatives from key MIT operational areas, is activated to muster the resources of MIT to oversee and resolve impacts of emergencies affecting multiple portions of the campus. In parallel, key members of the senior administration form an Emergency Executive Committee (EEC) and make policy decisions in collaboration with faculty governance entities (e.g., the Faculty Policy Committee and the Officers of the Faculty) and the Academic Council. The EEC is the public face of any emergency, including any communications to the MIT community, parents, and the press. Its policies not only impact the public’s perception of MIT during an emergency, it also drives the direction of emergency and business continuity efforts.
Previous Emergency and Business Continuity Planning Efforts
Many of us recall the frenzy in the months preceding January 1, 2000, the dreaded “Y2K syndrome.” Numerous entities, including MIT, undertook planning efforts to ensure business operations continued smoothly. The scope of the effort, however, focused on only a handful of MIT offices: Facilities; Information Services and Technology and Student Information Services; and Human Resources. Each of these groups formed FARM (Functional Area Recovery and Management) Teams, developed plans, and identified key department contacts.
Prior to 9/11, emergency planning focused on the safe evacuation requirements of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA’s) Emergency Action Plan standard. After 9/11, the plans that the Medical Department, the Division of Student Life, and research labs developed were based on Homeland Security “threat levels,” and gave consideration to such items as additional staffing needs. Alongside these efforts, the Division of Student Life developed their “Dean on Call” emergency response guide, which provides protocols for various emergency situations. Simultaneously, MIT embarked upon the development of a comprehensive Environment, Health and Safety Management System (EHS-MS). The hallmark of the EHS-MS was the concept of partnership between the various Institute departments, labs, and centers (DLCs) and the EHS Office.
Where the inception of the EHS-MS originally focused on building a culture of safety-compliance, the lessons of One Broadway make it clear other areas of campus not historically served by the EHS-MS may now benefit from its organization in order to better plan for emergencies. To coordinate and consolidate the various planning efforts and nodes within the emergency preparedness network, in 2007 Executive Vice President Stone created the Security and Emergency Management Office. Housed in the Environment, Health and Safety Headquarters, this new office now strategically positions the Institute to address emerging security issues in tandem with the traditional EHS-based emergency preparedness and business continuity planning efforts.
Continuing the Continuity Planning: Efforts Currently Underway
In 2006, the Emergency Operations Center working group and the EHS Office began a dialogue with faculty groups and the central deans’ offices to understand how an extended outage emergency (such as a flu pandemic) might impact the education program as well as the research program at MIT. As discussions have matured, a set of guiding principles and objectives has evolved. First and foremost is ensuring the well-being of MIT students, faculty, and staff, as well as visitors and guests.
The flu pandemic scenario is perhaps the “mother of all emergencies” in that it targets our most valuable resource: people. Numerous policy issues, affecting research and teaching alike arise, including:
- how do we effectively apply “social distancing” measures to mitigate the spread of illness? It may mean that we suspend many of our normal operations, including classes, and that students and staff who can leave and stay away from the campus do so. Do we enforce such a policy, however, and if so, how?
- what are the financial, educational, and – primarily for students – the psychological implications of truncating an academic term? The spectrum of considerations spans everything from possibly using IAP or summer as a make-up term to how MIT continues to support graduate student stipends if the students are unable to work.
- how do MIT’s administrative units continue to support the research mission without exacerbating any safety hazards created by a pandemic flu? Estimates of absentee rates associated with pandemic flu are in the 30%-40% range. Many of the hazardous laboratory operations could create very unsafe and possibly damaging conditions for the Institute. Who is willing to hibernate lab activity?
- to what extent is MIT willing to share its resources? On a personal level, this may mean volunteering expertise (caring for the sick); on a campus level, it may mean opening our doors to the Cambridge community either by will or by command of city, state, or federal agencies.
- finally, how do we begin to assess the costs and plan for recovery?
It is often said that it is not the plan itself that is used at the moment of emergency, rather it’s the think-on-your-feet capability and the second-nature ability to work together that the act of planning instills. The One Broadway fire and our discussions over the past year about extended outages have catalyzed preparations for a planning exercise that will involve all units at the Institute – from the administrative and operational units to the academic schools and research laboratories. In the planning process we ask that individual faculty and DLC administrators consider the following:
- how would you stabilize your research activity if water service or power was lost for more than a day or a week; your building was closed due to a major fire, gas leak, or other building system emergency for an extended period of time; or a significant natural disaster renders your research area indefinitely inaccessible?
- what are the major supply chains for your lab operations? What contracts are currently in place with your vendors?
- is research data routinely backed up off site?
- have you thought of an alternate location where you could possibly share resources temporarily so you can continue your work?
- have you discussed how to handle an emergency or outage with your staff and students?
- do you have ready access to department phone lists and MIT office contacts that can assist you in an emergency?
In the coming months, all units will be asked to identify their critical activities and plan for the eventuality of an extended outage (e.g., implementing a local communications plan as well as ensuring support for activity that cannot be discontinued during an emergency). By being fully prepared, we can ensure a safe and orderly response to an emergency outage, should one occur, and protect MIT’s most important assets: its people and our research.