Behind the Scenes When Everything Shakes

By Leo Washburn in News

During an evacuation there is no set code for the minimum safe distance from building, according to Mark Fennell, Director of Risk Management. The “general accepted rule” is no less that 100 to 200 feet.  (Léo Washburn / The Independent)

It was just a drill. For most an inconvenience lasting less than 20 minutes. For others the practice was deeper.

On Oct. 16, Clark took part in the Great Washington Shake Out exercise. This event is conducted each year across the state to practice earthquake response protocols.

Mark Fennell, Director of Risk Management, invited The Independent to send a reporter.

As I arrived to Clark campus about 10 a.m., I noticed many premium parking spaces were empty.

The library was full however. Sitting near a big bookcase I thought that if the earthquake were real this might not be the best place to be.

Just as we were told, an alarm sounded at 10:16 a.m. A voice told everyone they should “Drop! Cover! And hold!”

Questioning faces looked around for a moment. As the instructions droned on students and staff crawled under the tables.

A young woman pulled out her phone and recorded a video of the huddling crowd and then took a selfie to commemorate.

After about 15 seconds the voice told us to gather our belongings and evacuate the buildings. Everyone dutifully collected their backpacks, books, and electronic devices and marched outside to the fountain.

Some people in other buildings were not so compliant.

Clark student Holly Varner was in the Gaiser Student Center when the alarm sounded.

“A few people got under the tables,” Varner said. “But most people were blowing it off.”

One person took advantage of the captive audience by the fountain to advertise a drag show next month.

After about 15 minutes, came the announced that the drill was over. People barely looked up from their cell phones as they went back to their routine—unaware that the practice continued for the emergency response team.

They gathered in a small conference room in Gaiser Hall. A few men and women in various-colored vests made eye contact with me as I entered through the door in front of them. They were seated at tables facing a woman at a podium with a walkie-talkie. Another woman stood at a whiteboard writing down information.

“The president is on his way,” said the woman at the podium.

“He wants to be briefed,” Tim Cook, Vice President of Instruction said. “That comes from the incident commander.”

“Send him my way,” said Chato Hazelbaker, Chief Communications Officer for Clark. He is the Public Information Officer for this practice session.

I had been told to arrive at a specific time but didn’t want to interrupt. The questions I had been told to ask could wait.

“So how did the president get out of Baird if there is a gas leak?” a team member said.

“If it’s halon it’d be isolated in the basement,” said another. “That’s heavier than air so it’s not going to rise.”

Halon gas is used in a fire extinguishing system for electronic environments where water would damage valuable equipment. It works by displacing oxygen.

Random comments addressing various reports of the scripted damage continued.

“If there’s a water leak in Scarpelli maybe someone could turn off the water?”

“That’s the least of our concerns right now.”

“Is there anything down there in Scarpelli that we need to be concerned about? There’s a floor below that. Isn’t that where all the computers are at? Right below the women’s restroom in Scarpelli?”

“Are you sure?”

“Yes, I chose it for a reason.”

Then back again to the halon leak.

“When the halon deploys you have about 15 seconds to get out. It takes up the oxygen and if you’re in there when it deploys, well, you’re done.”

“So we will not be sending in a search-and-rescue team?”

“No. If those people are not self-extracted within 15 seconds, they’re dead.”


“So we have a possible fatality?”

The answer was there would be someone verifying halon deployment without entering the building. If halon had been deployed they would tag it as a possible fatality.

About then, President Bob Knight came into the conference room. After a pleasant greeting Hazelbaker escorted Knight to the door. Cook explained to the others this was so the others could continue to work on responding.

“You don’t want board members interfering with what goes on here.”

The discussion continued. Injuries. Rescue teams. Specific damage in various buildings. Identification procedures of the injured. Where to set up housing. What food capabilities are available. Finding keys to access rooms.

Finally I introduced myself.

“Someone should be stationed at the door to meet anyone who comes in,” said one of the responders.

Hazelbaker took me aside. He said in a real emergency I would be stopped at the door. I would be told when and where the first press briefing would be. There would be press briefings every hour after that first one.

I had been asked to join them for that meeting so that there could be practice with a reporter. I asked questions about injuries and whatever else I had overheard.

“We have the teams out now evaluating the situation. The fastest way to get the information to you is by handling it this way. We will be able to tell you more at the press briefing.”

I asked if I could sit and listen to more.

“No. In fact the president is going to get kicked out of here shortly too.”

Clearly the people in this room were not blowing it off, unlike some students who were only required to cover for several minutes and then meet outside.

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