A report released earlier this month evaluating the campus’s response to the Sept. 30 explosion confirmed what many affected might have already suspected: UC Berkeley administrators’ shortcomings, which unnecessarily protracted the amount of time students were left trapped, panicked or confused, resulted from communication failure.
By now, administrators’ communication breakdowns have become a crisis staple. After the occupation of Wheeler Hall in 2009, a campus police review board identified several ways in which administrators could have more effectively communicated with protesters. Similarly, campus officials’ emails released after the Nov. 9, 2011, Occupy Cal protest, in which peaceful protesters were hit with batons by campus police, demonstrate communication difficulties in coordinating a response. Ultimately, a police review board report after the Occupy Cal protests found that police actions resulted from the administration’s failure to adopt recommendations made in the Wheeler Hall incident report.
Although the circumstances surrounding those communication failures were different, a confused chain of command and difficulty disseminating accurate information to students were central problems identified in the handling of the explosion. As outlined in the report’s 29 action items, many administrators’ uncertainty about their roles left essential duties unfulfilled. Mark Freiberg, director of the campus’s Office of Environment, Health and Safety, told The Daily Californian that because those who coordinated evacuation and safety efforts were unclear about their authority to authorize buildings for re-entry, many students were left trapped in elevators without power.
Other problems noted in the report can also be seen in previous campus crisis responses. After police shot an armed student in 2011, the emergency text message WarnMe system meant to inform students about dangerous situations on campus was criticized as ineffective because many students were not subscribers to it and thus did not receive alerts. Administrators’ efforts to fix the system by making subscriptions opt-out rather than opt-in seemed to have burdened it with thousands of “inactive” users, which slowed down messages’ delivery.
In an interview with the Daily Cal’s Senior Editorial Board, Chancellor Nicholas Dirks said the explosion was “a momentary meltdown of not just the switch but of our capacity to respond.” Those moments seem to be recurring.
The fact that it caused relatively minor damage makes it a good learning opportunity. In a way, the explosion was a test of the campus’s ability to respond to emergencies that could be much worse in the future, particularly if the predicted “Big One” earthquake hits. Hopefully, the administration breaks what appears to be an emerging pattern of poor communication during crises.
Despite the shortcomings the incident outlined, the fact that the campus dedicates time and resources to understanding its failings after the fact by drafting reports is commendable. Still, administrators cannot delay swallowing difficult medicine — real structural change — when it comes to emergency response and preparedness, especially because such emergencies seem to occur with reliable frequency.