Stan State tests disaster preparedness

TURLOCK -- Practice makes perfect.

At least that's what California State University, Stanislaus, officials hope after spending two hours Friday on a disaster drill.

Emergency workers, with the aid of student actors, staged a bombing at the university's dorm cafeteria just after 11 a.m. The scenario included a loud blast, smoke, two fatalities and a foot pursuit of the suspect.

The dorms were evacuated and closed for nearly two hours while law enforcement and paramedics worked. The agencies that took part were the Stanislaus State University Police Department, Turlock Police Department, Turlock Fire Department, Stanislaus County Sheriff's Department, University of California at Merced Police Department, Merced Police Department, American Red Cross, Medi-Flight air ambulance and AMR ambulance.

A high priority for the drill was trying the university's Direct Emergency Notification system, which informs students and staff of disasters through phone, e-mail and text messages.

After campus shootings such as the one at Virginia Tech, college officials recognize the significance of getting information out as quickly as possible.

Students and staff knew of the drill about 30 minutes before the simulated explosion in the cafeteria. They were sent an additional message through the notification system.

"Communication is the No. 1 thing that will fail -- it's the biggest problem during a disaster, so we know we need to work on it the hardest," said Amy Thomas, emergency preparedness manager on campus. "The No. 1 thing people want to know is what to do, and they want to know what's going on so they can figure out for them- selves what to do."

During the exercise, officials also updated the university's emergency hot line -- 1-877-STAN-411 (1-877-782-6411) -- and Web site -- http://web.csustan.edu/emergency -- with new information about the incident.

Organizers released few details to emergency responders to keep the drill as realistic as possible. A Merced police officer played the bomber; he was captured within 15 minutes, Thomas said, after he planted a second bomb.

The university's last drill was seven years ago. Thomas said he hopes to do one every two years.

Friday afternoon, about 70 participants discussed what went well and what flopped during the drill.

"This allows us to expose the pitfalls and the loops we need to close up," said university spokeswoman Kristin Olsen, who played herself as well as the role of university President Hamid Shirvani during a news conference.

People were impressed with the university police's spacious command center and the quickness with which the suspect was apprehended, Thomas said.

They also shared their concerns about the slow advance of officers responding to the call; whether resident advisers should focus on evacuating the dorms or catching suspects; and the university police's two radio systems, which clearly should be unified, Thomas said. Students also said the text messages they received were confusing.

The Direct Emergency Notification system needs information from students and staff. Only 3,400 people (1,200 students) received phone messages or e-mails Friday. With about 10,000 students, faculty, staff and administrators, the system needs more people to sign up.

The exercise inconvenienced many students, who evacuated their rooms and waited outside the gated dorms. Resident advisers knew about the drill, and said it is beneficial to practice.

"It's good. It's kind of weird for me because I don't really know what to do," said Juan Garcia, physical education senior and dorm custodian. Garcia manned gates to keep students out of the dorms. "It's good we have phone messages going out -- I see everyone on their phones and texting and stuff."

About a dozen students helped make the exercise realistic -- theater students portrayed the dead and wounded while journalism students acted as reporters. The scenario included a mock news conference and a command center where about 20 representatives from campus and emergency agencies met to respond. The students wore blue vests, while emergency crews donned bright orange vests.

The University of the Pacific in Stockton also held an emergency drill this week involving 400 people from local, state and federal agencies from Stockton, Sacramento, San Francisco and Anaheim. The scenario played out during a mock basketball game on campus in which a bomb exploded and biohazard chemicals were spread.

UOP's notification system, similar to Stanislaus State's, will make its debut Dec. 5.

One of Stanislaus State's drill coordinators said such disaster scenarios allow emergency workers to hone their skills and procedures. She said California has a reputation for it's thorough emergency preparedness because of that practice.

To sign up for Stanislaus State's notification system, go to the emergency Web site at https://web.csustan.edu/Emergency/DEN/intro.html.

Bee staff writer Michelle Hatfield can be reached at mhatfield@modbee.com or 578-2339.