More on Westmont's Wildfire Response Plan
If a wildfire threatens the campus, we ask everyone to come to the gym. From there, depending on direction from fire officials, we will either coordinate an orderly departure--as time allows--or simply shelter within the gym if fire officials deem that the safer option. Both approaches (go and stay) have been planned out and then exercised in actual fire conditions, and found to function well--and we are continually improving our processes for optimal safety for all concerned.
Shelter in Place
The Montecito Fire Protection District (MFPD) has recommended that Westmont College use the Murchison Gymnasium complex to shield everyone who is on campus in the event of a wildfire threat that comes upon us too quickly for an orderly departure. This recommendation, based upon MFPD’s expertise with wildfires and upon the cumulative experience of fire officials around the US and elsewhere, was proven out in the Tea Fire of November 2008 when 800 people were safely sheltered while that fire burned right up to the gym. The approach is variously referred to as protect-in-place, shelter-in-place, or evacuate-in-place.
The fire-resistive construction, size, prominence and location of our gym and its environs combine to render it well suited to this purpose. In fact, its generous capacity will enable Westmont not only to protect all those who are on campus on any typical day, but also to welcome nearby local residents in such an event. Adequate buffer from significant fuel sources (dense combustible vegetation) is provided, and several fire hydrants exist within the vicinity of the gym.
Stay, not Flee?
Staying is actually much safer than fleeing, as proven in other fires when facilities carefully planned and prepared in advance were used.
Because this may seem opposite from what one might expect, we want to stress the point and ask for your support. If you are a parent and your student calls to report a big fire in the hills, please don’t encourage them to do the less safe thing, which would be to hop in a car and drive away. Plus, if the safest solution is to depart campus, we'd like to fill as many seats as possible in the cars leaving.
Please note that the Shelter is intended to keep people relatively safe from injury. We have made reasonable provisions for meeting basic needs, but we do not assure people that they will experience no inconvenience or discomfort.
The college has in place a cache of supplies intended to enable us to safely hunker down in the gym for up to several hours--ample time for the fire front to consume combustible nearby vegetation and move on.
The supply inventory currently contains 3,000 bottles of water, plus other items of nearly a hundred different types, including
- communications devices (handheld radios; satellite phones; etc)
- office supplies (for the incident management team)
- first aid materials (smoke respirators and other items)
- and so on
We will gladly welcome neighbors who need shelter as well. Our facility has been designated by local officials as a safety zone for the surrounding community. (We even have diapers and baby formula for displaced young families.)
The college's Situation Readiness & Response Team (SRT) has organized the wildfire plan using the nationally recognized Incident Command System structure. We have also consulted the disaster preparedness materials and experts of the American Red Cross. Each of the following functions has a primary responder and backup, with three additional levels of backup for most positions.
- Incident Command - Oversee the entire response
- Public Safety / Agency Liaison - Provide premises security, and coordinate with official agencies
- Public Information - Ensure effective communication both on and off campus
- Logistics - Set up and maintain the shelter area; and other support
- Operations - Account for people; provide basic medical and emotional care
- Admin/Finance - Notify responders; keep track of administrative details
Education & Training
Our students, faculty and staff—and even our summer conference guests—are routinely advised that if there’s a threat of wildfire they must go to the gym. The shelter team will manage the operation there while our Public Safety staff secures the rest of the campus and directs people to the gym. Our ongoing readiness process includes periodic training and cross-training on the mobilization and operational tasks.
Public Agency Involvement
Westmont has excellent ongoing relations with the public service agencies in our community, many of whom have been involved in and/or led our training sessions. Our wildfire plan has been reviewed and affirmed by the Montecito Fire Protection District, Santa Barbara City Fire, the city and county Offices of Emergency Services, County Sheriff, California Highway Patrol, and American Red Cross.