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Opinion: Willamette is unprepared for the Big One

Kathleen Forrest


Graphic by Maizy Goerlitz

200 million years ago, the chain of volcanoes that exists on the West Coast first started to form. They resulted from the tectonic plates of the earth moving with one plate going under another, producing a volcano on the surface. The Juan de Fuca plate is currently (and has been for millions of years) subducting underneath the North American plate, and creates what is called the Cascadia Subduction Zone (CSZ). This zone encompasses the bottom piece of Canada’s western coast, all the way down to Northern California, nearly 700 miles in total. Now we can jump ahead to much more recent history: the last 10,000 years. Along the CSZ, there have been (as far as we know) 41 earthquakes, occurring roughly every 300 years. It has been over three centuries since the last Cascadia earthquake, but in this case the more time passes, the more vulnerable we become.

This may seem like a self-indulgent tangent into third grade geology, but the background is important to make a point. When geologists predict that the next big Cascadia earthquake will hit in the next fifty years, it is based upon thousands of years of data and a planet that is hundreds of millions of years into the making. A massive earthquake will happen in the Pacific Northwest, and elsewhere along the CSZ. It is just a matter of when and to what magnitude.

Like many who grew up in the Pacific Northwest, I grew up with a healthy fear of earthquakes, wildfires, and the other natural hazards that come with this part of the world. But that fear did not translate into actually knowing what to do. When we ran drills in middle school, we just did what the teachers told us to do, we didn’t actually know how to do it for ourselves. Looking back on this, and trying to do better as an individual, I’ve learned what a shame that is, as drills are actually critically important to emergency preparedness.

This year the National Level Exercise run by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is based around a Cascadia earthquake scenario, the state of Oregon is running a series of drills and seminars called Cascadia Rising, and Willamette Emergency Medical Services is planning a drill for this spring. At all levels of emergency preparedness from federal to institutional, drills are incredibly important to get everyone on the same page. The most advanced warning system we have for an earthquake will give us at maximum 80 seconds of notice, and we decide what we get out of those 80 seconds with our drills and preparedness.

One drill coming from the United States Geological Survey (USGS), and implemented by individual states is given the snazzy title of the Great ShakeOut. Willamette did not participate in this in 2021, and when asked about it, Director of Campus Safety Ross Stout downplayed it, saying “We have participated in the past, we didn’t in 2021. It’s an opportunity for people around the state to drill on the same day, there’s nothing special about it, it’s kind of a marketing thing to get people to bring awareness. It’s really an opportunity for everyone to practice their own work and not something where resources are provided for it.” The problem with this reasoning is that there is something very special about everyone drilling on the same day: getting everyone on the same page. It’s also notable that there have been no alternate drills provided by the university to ‘practice their own work’ to make up for missing the Great ShakeOut. According to Stout, the last time Willamette did a proper earthquake drill was “probably 2019.”

Let’s take another diversion into history: On Sept. 19, 1985, an earthquake hit Mexico City, registering at 8.1 on the Richter scale. In the immediate aftermath 10,000 people died, and 30,000 were left injured. In the immediate aftermath of this earthquake, people without any kind of disaster pre-training stepped forward, referred to by emergency managers as ‘emergent volunteers’. It is estimated that the emergent volunteers in Mexico City [saved 800 lives], but over 100 of those volunteers died in the process. It is inevitable that people will turn up to help their community following a disaster. And so, in keeping with preparedness as the most important piece of response, the City of Los Angeles developed the Community Emergency Response Team program.

Known as CERT, this program aims to find emergent volunteers before they find disasters, and give them the basic training to help others whilst also taking care of themselves. According to [CERT’s website], there are over 2,700 local programs across the country that have trained over 600,000 people. The City of Salem CERT program is overseen by Emergency Preparedness Manager Greg Walsh, who was able to give specific numbers for the city. “My predecessor started a CERT program in 2003, and since 2003 we’ve trained more than 2,000 people in the community, which sounds like a lot and it’s great that we’ve trained that many, but at the same time in a community of 170,000 that's still not enough.” It’s especially so in comparison to the fact that Willamette has (according to the Willamette website) 1,585 undergraduate students at present, which could be a considerable bump in numbers. On the CERT website they acknowledge that, “A college or university often functions as a ‘city within a city,’ and often has its own emergency management capabilities.” In fact, they have an entire guide for specifically starting a campus-based CERT.

And it turns out that this is not a new idea. According to Director of Campus Safety Ross Stout, “CERT classes were taught on campus for a number of years” but “about five years ago, budget cuts resulted in reducing the support the university was providing to host this program on campus.” Stout revealed that the cost of the program was roughly $5,000 per year, coming from Campus Safety and emergency management budgets. He said that the university has instead chosen to direct those who are interested to the city program instead. In regards to a campus specific CERT program, Stout said, “A WU CERT team is seen by some to be elitist and isolationist, where participation in established Salem CERT teams is perceived as community building.”

While the university shut down the program due to perceived lack of interest and lack of funds, that does not disqualify it from being restarted as the priorities of the student body change. In a push to start again now, we have a great and terrible advantage: A student body that has experienced, and continues to experience, a mass casualty event. We have witnessed the body count that comes not just from these natural events, but from lack of preparedness on the part of governments and institutions. An earthquake does not discriminate anymore than a virus does in who it hurts, but the societal systems that respond do discriminate. Based on race, gender, sexuality and poverty, and as we strive for a more diverse student body we must recognize that it comes with disparate impacts on different students. A CERT need only be as isolationist and elitist as the university makes itself to be, and so we must strive to be better than that.

The existing state of other areas of Willamette emergency preparedness are concerning. There are at most 4 and sometimes only one campus safety officer on duty at Willamette at any given time. Stout acknowledges the limitations of this saying that in a ‘serious emergency’, “we’re probably quickly gonna run out of resources, cause we’re just a very small group.” Walsh mentioned that if Willamette had problems they couldn’t handle then the city would try to assist, but for Willamette city assistance seems to be the default, for serious and simple emergencies.

“We don’t have expertise on a very high level in a lot of areas of emergency response, but we are experts in knowing who to call and how to get them to the person or the situation where help is needed. Campus Safety officers are trained in CPR and first aid, so we hope we can keep someone alive for 3-5 minutes until help arrives but our primary role is going to be to make sure that those emergency responders are able to access where they need to go,” said Stout.

Stout does acknowledge the precarious position at the higher levels of mass casualty events, separating them into two types. The first are localized events, like a fire, where even though it has a great deal of people, it can still be reasonably best addressed using city resources. The second is less so. “The one we worry about is the earthquake, when it’s a regional situation, emergency services are immediately overwhelmed, and in the case of an earthquake don’t even have the capacity to drive vehicles to deal with problems. That one is certainly… problematic. And will be devastating even under the best circumstances.”

Stout continues, “Because that earthquake issue is so large, it’s kind of beyond the scope of something you can prepare for. So instead we’re going to look to preparing for more likely things: fires and floods and ice storms, and have a plan to deal with those things,” said Stout. This leaves us back in a vulnerable position. I am certainly not arguing that we shouldn’t prepare for those things, but any degree of earthquake preparedness would be better than nothing. As it is, previous university handling of incidents such as [ice storms] and [wildfires] has been criticized.

One of Willamette’s greatest assets is Willamette Emergency Medical Services (WEMS). They are a group of student volunteers, with Emergency Medical Responder training, and develop their experience with it by being on-duty at Willamette on weekdays from 5 p.m. to 8 a.m. and on weekends from 5 p.m. on Friday to 5 p.m. on Sunday. WEMS responders, according to Stout, “have a higher level of training and medical license to treat people in a better way than Campus Safety officers can. So if we’re unable to get Salem Fire to respond… then any WEMS members who are on campus would, even if they’re not on duty, their instructions are, in that kind of a serious thing, they would report and begin looking for direction as to where to treat patients.” When asked whether or not this was in fact an explicitly communicated instruction, Stout said, “Well… I guess it’s an expectation, WEMS members are volunteers so they have no responsibility like an employee would…We’re making the assumption that they would respond to a mass casualty incident.”

When I asked Nathan Brown (‘22), the President of WEMS, about university communication on this subject, his answer was direct, “The University has no plans to utilize WEMS in any sort of natural disaster or mass casualty incident.” And this is, seemingly, par for the course: “WEMS has been around for 25 years and the university has never had any plans or relationship to implement them in any natural response.” While WEMS does have some supplies, it is very limited and does not account for items being needed for multiple injured patients. They are aware that there is a university stockpile of items, but they don’t have access to it nor do they know what all is there (which, according to Stout, is not enough for a major disaster).

On the expectation of WEMS volunteers to respond, Brown said that if they aren’t on duty or on WEMS’ exec board, they aren’t expected to report. When asked how many of the other student volunteers he thought would respond anyway, he said, “A very solid majority.” When WEMS extended their coverage to weekdays, they [admitted] in the interview with The Collegian that they would likely be ‘stretched thin’ and would need to recruit people. But they all agreed with the change, despite the fact that they definitely faced no obligation to make it. It’s not hard to see why Brown is confident in the dedication of those volunteers.

The limitations they currently face, for simple emergencies and certainly for mass casualty events is a recurring theme: “Money. That’s the root of all of our problems,” said Brown. Funding for WEMS is allocated by the Associated Students of Willamette University, with the money coming from student fees. The funding system is based on rounds of funding, with requests coming in based on predicted needs for each organization a couple weeks ahead of time. For WEMS, this creates problems:

“Having items only be able to come in every month or so is not normal for a medical provider, especially since we can’t predict what kinds of patients we’ll have and what kind of equipment we’ll use. A good example is that we just staffed a rugby game over the weekend and we had to send a patient with two splints that we’re not gonna get back. And there wasn’t any way for us to predict that, so now we have to wait for the next funding round before we can get more splints.”

WEMS is forced to work within a funding system that is fundamentally not conducive to their mission. They have been trying for the past few semesters to get WEMS funded via a separate student fee, similar to how CAFES grants are funded. ASWU told them to ask the university, the university told them to ask ASWU, and they found themselves being pinged back and forth between the two until they were finally told they couldn’t because the university is trying to get away from fees.

Proper funding seems appropriate given not just the role WEMS already plays in public health at Willamette, but how important they will be in the case of an earthquake. While I would like to see a fully funded campus CERT program, I would like to see a fully funded WEMS more. It would also be in keeping with university concerns about preparing for lower level, more likely disasters. These student volunteers have a higher level of medical expertise and licensing than Campus Safety, have greater numbers of people, and it should follow that they would have more supplies.

I am optimistic about the abilities of students to organize themselves and their resources, as evidenced by WEMS and organizations such as the aptly named Students Organizing Access to Resources (SOAR) center. I think we have a moral obligation to do more. If we are able to keep ourselves safe, we then have an obligation to help our surrounding community. It is not isolationist or elitist to strive to be self-sufficient as individuals or as an institution in the event of a mass casualty event, but quite the opposite. We cannot help others if we cannot help ourselves. It is heroic that the emergent volunteers in Mexico City saved over 800 people, it is also an untenable and avoidable tragedy that 100 of them lost their lives. A campus CERT program would be infinitely more accessible to students and continue the lessons learned from that earthquake.

Brown’s instinct is that WEMS’ volunteers would respond, and it’s Stout’s as well, and I believe that it is a correct one. Willamette students, even those without training, will likely be emergent volunteers in the case of an earthquake, or any other mass casualty event. If they are not trained beforehand, many of them may die in the process of helping other people. For a school whose motto is ‘Not Unto Ourselves Alone Are We Born’, it is directly in line with the values of this institution to support these programs and give them the necessary resources and attention, and it is in keeping with the spirit of the student body.

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