When Disaster Strikes…

On Thursday, Oct. 31, the Montana State Fire Marshall closed the S.O.B. barn because the facility failed to meet fire code. Closure of the barn, used primarily by student clubs, left groups struggling for places to gather, including the popular swing/country dance club which has held country swing dances every Friday night in the S.O.B. barn for the past 11 years.


Investigations into the barn’s safety began early this semester when ASMSU Campus Entertainment considered holding a concert in it. “It’s just kind of steam-rolled since that point,” said Damberger. Amy Lanzendorf, president of the swing/country dance club, echoed that statement: “At the very beginning of the semester, we were told occupancy in the loft was 750 people, two to three weeks later told 250. Four weeks ago, we found out occupancy was 100.”

Damberger was unsure why the S.O.B. barn safety was not addressed earlier. “Maybe because small groups have been in there,” he said. Lanzendorf said, “I think everyone knew the barn was not the safest place in the world, but we appreciated it while we had it,” She has since struggled to find a place to hold “the largest weekly event in southwest Montana.”

Lanzendorf did say the SUB has been very helpful and even provided some emergency funds to support the weekly dances, but the club has resorted to some unique locations, hosting last Friday night’s dance in the Hosaeus Fitness Center Lobby.

[pullquote align=”right”]“The goal [for the S.O.B. barn] is to be open by next semester, but obviously there is no guarantee.” –  Butch Damberger, director of the Strand Union Building.[/pullquote]

The S.O.B. barn’s recent closure brings to the limelight an important function at MSU — safety. It also begs the questions: Who or what is in charge of facility safety? How does MSU prepare for and respond to emergencies? These questions are quite timely as their answers have recently or are currently being revised.

MSU Pre-Disaster Mitigation Plan

In 2006, each university in the Montana University System (MUS) received a $25,000 matching grant from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to develop pre-disaster mitigation plans at universities and colleges around the state.

MSU used that grant to identify primary hazards, such as an earthquake, severe winter weather or, given the university’s proximity to Yellowstone National Park, a volcanic eruption. The hazards were then prioritized according to risk and hazard analysis was used to identify critical issues MSU would face if such an emergency occurred.

Those critical issues included and ranged from damage to collections at the Museum of the Rockies, a lack of student housing after damage to a residence hall and the need for an institutional recovery plan after an emergency. After identifying these threats, a mitigation strategy was developed for each problem to better prepare MSU for an emergency.

Thus, in 2007 and with the contracted help of Tetra Tech, Inc., MSU created a Pre-Disaster Mitigation Plan (PDM) to be implemented throughout the university.

Boxed off with title: Pre-Disaster Mitigation Plan Update

An update and renewal grant was built into the original FEMA grant, and now five years later MSU is one of two universities around the state to use the renewal grant to update their PDM. Over the summer, an MSU advisory committee, again with contracted help of Tetra Tech, has identified progress made on the implementation of the PDM and updated it to accordingly reflect future implementation strategies. That plan is currently under a 30-day comment period until Dec. 1 at which time the PDM will go to President Cruzado for approval and then on to the Montana FEMA office.

Since its inception, a number of mitigation strategies have been executed, including developing offsite storage for tape backup of IT and telecommunications systems and installing enhanced campus security, such as the blue lights around campus which have a direct line to the University Police and can be used to report both an emergency or a personal threat. However Glenn Puffer, chair of the advisory committee, admitted, “We have not done many of the mitigation plans because much of it has to do with resources available, much of it has to do with money from FEMA.”

[pullquote align=”right”]“Emergency management is easy to forget about until something actually happens.” – Glenn Puffer, Chairman of the PDM Advisory Committee[/pullquote]

The PDM only identifies risks and creates mitigations strategies; it does not provide the finances to implement those strategies. Therefore, items like a change in the residence hall fire policy were easy to implement whereas seismic studies of MSU facilities were more costly. “One of the major benefits of having this mitigation plan is that it qualifies us to help put into practice each individual mitigation plan,” said Puffer. In 2012-13, because MSU had a PDM, it received a $2.2 million FEMA grant to complete a seismic retrofit of Cheever, Howard and Haynes Halls.

Emergency management at MSU

Creating that original PDM in 2007 led MSU to recognize that emergency management needed to be revamped. Along with that realization, last year President Cruzado created an emergency management taskforce to evaluate emergency planning.

As of Aug. 2013, the taskforce had been formalized into a committee which designed a new emergency operations plan for MSU and hired an emergency management coordinator, Tara Moore, who will begin the position in January. Moore will be responsible for managing emergency response planning and training pertinent individuals to handle such emergencies.

Boxed off with title: New Emergency Operations Plan

The new emergency operations plan has four different facets: the Institutional Response Group (IRG), the Emergency Operations Center (EOC), the Crisis Management Team (CMT), and tactical/on-scene incident command. The IRG includes people such as President Cruzado and Terry Leist, Vice-President of Administration and Finance, and is charged with developing an overall strategy and direction during a campus emergency. The EOC then carries out that overall strategy and is the point of contact for field emergency response.

The CMT, on the other hand, is established and charged by the President Cruzado when handling a crisis of significant risk to MSU that does not require activation of the EOC. Vice-President of University Services Robert Lashaway gave the example of the tragic accident that resulted in the death of MSU faculty member Betsy Palmer in Nepal earlier this year during the Honors College Great Expeditions Trip; then a CMT was established to handle the situation.

Worthwhile effort

“Emergency management is easy to forget about until something actually happens,” said Puffer. However, in the past MSU has been fortunate enough to have developed such plans in the nick of time. When the first emergency response plan was developed and then signed in 2000 by MSU’s then President Geoffrey Gamble, a bad windstorm combined with an asbestos removal project at Roberts Hall put the plan into action the very next day. “It was awful — the repair team walked around in hazmat suits, and professors were unable to access their research,” recalled Puffer, “But it was handy to have a plan.”

While the re-location of events like the country swing dances every Friday night may be disappointing, such frustrations are inevitable in order for safety to remain a priority at MSU.