CSUF evacuation drills can create chaos, confusion and raise concerns

In Campus News, News
(David Marshel/ Daily Titan)

An announcement notifying students and faculty of a scheduled evacuation drill prompted organized chaos campuswide Sept. 14.

Three minutes into the drill, hallways, stairways and pathways became packed with people moving toward their designated meeting areas.

In McCarthy Hall, the fire alarm on the first floor failed to operate and the building was evacuated, creating more confusion in an already overcrowded situation.

“It’s why we do these drills,” said Susan Fisher, Emergency Management coordinator. “What we found is the fire alarm system in McCarthy Hall has something wrong with it. People were calling our dispatch center directly, and we immediately put a call in to facilities to have that repaired.”

Moving large crowds effectively and safely can be difficult. When it comes to expediting these practice drills, there are two choices: Evacuate all the buildings at once, or perform daily drills until each building completes the drill procedure requirements.

Neither choice is ideal. Evacuation, fire alarm testing and inspection are required annually, according to California and Orange County fire codes.  

“It’s expedient to do everyone at once,” Fisher said. “But that’s probably the most chaotic situation. If people are prepared and can see the challenges of that situation, then individual building evacuations are going to be much easier to do and to comprehend.”

Some students disagree.

“I feel like in a real emergency, no one’s going to be like this. Everybody is going to just get out,” said biology major Jonathan Allen.

Jonathan Mouchou, a computer science major, echoed Allen’s sentiment.

“To evacuate the whole school is a little dramatic,” Mouchou said. “It should be evacuated, but a section at a time would lessen the chaos.”

Biology major Joey Gonzales left class early Sept. 14 because he remembers what the disorganization of these drills is like.

“It always bottlenecks at the fourth floor of McCarthy Hall,” Gonzales said. “There is really no point in these drills until they can figure out how to stop that.”

Evacuation drills are designed to educate students and staff on the procedures taken during a real emergency. Fisher said it is important to keep moving to the designated evacuation areas so that emergency personnel have at least a 50-foot clearance around the affected buildings.

“The real difficulty is when people know it is not a real fire, as soon as they step out of the building they don’t go any further,” Fisher said. “It’s very difficult to get everybody moving because they don’t realize there is a bunch of people behind them.”

There are also safety concerns for students with special needs who rely on help from fellow classmates and professors during an evacuation.

“One of my students is blind,” said Ellen Caldwell, Ph.D., associate English professor. “Getting down the three flights of crowded and jammed stairs, with her dog, is complicated, but not impossible because my students all helped.”

Fisher said Disability Support Services is supposed to prepare students with special needs for emergency situations.

Parking structures are also a potential issue during evacuations.

“If an emergency were to happen, people would probably just go home,” Allen said. “I feel like where the real chaos would be is in the parking structures. Everyone is going to try to get out and people will be stuck.”

Mouchou shared that concern.

“That’s where a majority of other incidents may occur. I feel like that should be addressed.” Mouchou said.

During evacuation procedures the building marshals play a critical role in crowd management.

The training guide for building marshals reads that if students are unsure of where to go, or have become separated from their groups, they should look for someone in an orange reflective vest.

In order to make sure students can evacuate safely, the Campus Emergency Preparedness department works closely with faculty, Risk Management, Disability Support Services and University Police with ongoing evacuation awareness training.

“We try to balance the primary mission of the university,” Fisher said. “People come here to learn. Along with that, my job is to make sure they’re learning proper emergency procedures as well.”

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