Emergency response system sound, college says

By Amy Ledig

Confused students milling around in the halls by candlelight. Frustrated Residential Assistants unable to get in contact with Residential Life. Info desk staff left with no information about what would happen next. This was the impression students got when the lights went out on Sunday night.College staff, though, has a different impression.

Dean of Students Jim Hoppe said that things went “probably about as well as they could have. I feel like everyone stepped up and did what they needed to do.”

“We were able to get radios to everyone and were all communicating on the same frequency,” Bigelow Hall Director Michael Klitzke said. Security got radios out to the Res Life staff very quickly, he said.

Klitzke attributed the hour delay between when the power went out and when a text message was sent alerting the campus community to uncertainty over how long the outage would last. He said that once it became clear that the power might not be coming back on, the college decided the halls needed to be evacuated.

The emergency lights in the halls came on as soon as the power went out, but students needed to be evacuated because the security lights lose power quickly.

“[The emergency lights] last between an hour or two. Two hours is the max,” Terry Gorman, director of security, said. “They’re meant to help you get out of the building.”

Despite the seemingly chaotic scene among staff on Sunday night, Res Life said that there were some factors that worked in their favor. Associate Director of Residential Life Peg Olson and Klitzke said that many staff meetings are at seven on Sunday nights, so RAs were already assembling, in addition to some going on duty at that time. They said that these factors meant that Res Life staff was in place and ready to handle the situation.

“We tell our staff, go to the office, see who’s there,” Olson said. “The timing was good. It helped that it was Sunday, that we had RAs on duty.”

Klitzke and Olson were both surprised and relieved that no one was trapped in an elevator when the power went down.

“The first thing we check is if there’s anyone stuck in the elevators,” Olson said.

Olson, who was made aware of the blackout when the lights went out at her house near campus, remained at home during the outage but was on the phone communicating both with staff and Xcel Energy. Other staff members appeared on campus to help respond to the outage, something Klitzke and Olson credited to the combination of many staff members living nearby the college as well as to the new text message alert system.

“Even though we have a response team, there’s enough people in the neighborhood [who can help,]” Olson said.

“It’s a nice sense of knowing we’re prepared,” Olson said. “I was glad it was only an hour and a half.”

Klitzke agreed. “I was running circles around the res halls!”

Olson said that the department had plans in place, referencing the emergency procedures available on the Macalester Security website. There, the college has posted plans for responding to emergencies ranging from chemical spills to violent individuals on campus.

“It depends on the emergency, it’s not a cookie cutter,” Olson said.

Hoppe said that Xcel had said the outage potentially could have continued through noon Monday, and that if that had occurred, the school would “make immediate assessments as to where people would stay.” He said there was the possibility of people returning to the dorms, although there were some safety concerns about heating, among other things. Given that the outage was relatively localized, he said, the school would call on neighbors such as Hamline and Saint Catherine’s to take in students.

“We would work with them the way we hope they’d work with us,” he said.

“We were working on those plans as the power came on,” Gorman said of what the college would have done with students had the outage continued. He said that the college would have tried to keep students entertained through more impromptu performances such as Scotch Tape did, or else by screening movies in JBD. He added that students could have gone to the library, if the library staff had approved the move.

Some questions were raised among students about the seeming level of confusion among staff, wondering what would have happened if the emergency had been something more serious than a blackout.

“Getting the text message is part of that, [telling you] to stay where you are,” Olson said. She said that Res Life was meeting with RAs to discuss what worked, what did not and what should change for the future.

“The RAs didn’t know what they were doing, but it didn’t come through to us. The RHD came out in the hall and told us to go to the Campus Center. They had walkie-talkies, they seemed to have it under control,” Liz Scholz ’10 said.

“If staff felt like they didn’t know what to do, we need to work on that,” Hoppe said, “but people were doing what they were supposed to.