Chancellor: What we’ve learned from September’s electrical fire

Chancellor Dirks released the following message on Monday, Dec. 16:

To the campus community,

I am writing to provide an update on our ongoing inquiry into the causes of the Sept. 30 electrical fire on campus. In addition to investigating the causes of this event, we are reviewing our emergency communications procedures. First, I want to assure everyone in our campus community that everything we have done to date, and will do in the future, is focused on safety, prevention of a re-occurrence and finding ways we might improve the manner in which we respond to a crisis.

Throughout this entire process (entailing damage assessment, repair, and the ongoing investigation into the cause, or causes, of the incident), our high-voltage team has worked closely with independent outside experts and vendors. Our repair and investigative efforts have been comprehensive, effective and consistent with best practices. At this point, damage done by the fire has been fully repaired, and that portion of our electrical grid has been tested and re-tested to confirm it is operating safely.

The investigation began on Oct. 3, even as work continued to restore power to all of the impacted campus buildings. In the immediate aftermath of the incident, the initial assessment suggested that the large electrical switch located next to California Hall had likely failed as a result of undiscovered damage done during the theft of copper wire from our electrical grid. However, after the fire our investigative team, comprised of campus personnel and an independent electrical engineering firm, went back and tested the repairs done to that portion of the grid on Sept. 19, two days after the theft was first reported. The results of that test indicated that all of the damage done to that portion of our grid in the course of the theft had, in fact, been repaired. While it is too soon to rule anything out, the team is now focusing attention on the possibility of a fault within the electrical switch that failed and ignited.

The evidence gathered to date indicates that this switch “shorted” in the course of restoring power to the campus after the outage that occurred earlier that same day. I have been assured that there was no warning and no indication that this restoration of power would unfold any differently than in the past, on previous occasions when the campus power supply has been interrupted. In addition, when the switch failed, it failed fast, literally in less than one-third of a second. As a result, there was no apparent reason to suspect the switch would fail and no time to issue a warning once the switch ignited.

According to our electrical engineers, the switches we use are considered to be among the best and most reliable in the industry. They are designed to withstand extreme conditions, and we had not had similar experiences with any of these devices. As a result, we have decided to ship the entire switch to an independent testing laboratory for a comprehensive forensic evaluation that could help to identify the root cause of the incident.

Once that forensic work and other investigative efforts are completed, a further update will be provided to the campus community. In the meantime, we have taken steps to secure access points to our electrical grid and continue to carefully monitor the campus’s entire electrical system.

In addition to the technical investigation, I also asked for an assessment of our emergency communications procedures and protocols.  While the university has detailed plans for emergency response, and highly capable people assigned to implement them, it is inevitable that we will learn new lessons whenever there is a real-life emergency. In this case, because the initial power outage did not pose an imminent threat to campus personnel or operations, the university’s formal emergency-response and communications plans were only partially activated at the time that the electrical switch unexpectedly ignited. Despite that, the campus was quickly cleared after the fire and basic information about the closure was widely disseminated.

However, the assessment did find that the initial decision to delay communication about building closures and class cancellations, pending an evaluation of the electrical grid’s status after the fire, unintentionally created a certain degree of confusion and concern. That communications delay was also extended by what was a prudent decision to restore power across the campus in a safe, methodical way that pushed the restoration process well into the night.

We also learned that in those early hours after the fire, building coordinators did not initially receive timely and/or sufficiently clear briefings or updates. During this same period of time, our process for confirming the accuracy of information for public release lagged behind what the news media were reporting, which eroded confidence in official messages from the campus administration.

We have also determined that our emergency alert system, WarnMe, suffered from technical limitations that undermined the timeliness and utility of communications sent through that system. In addition, some of the messages sent through the WarnMe system were not always as clear as they could have been.

By the next morning, however, we had a much clearer picture of what had occurred and the extent of the damage, as well as the scope of the continuing power outage. From that point on communications from the campus were accurate, timely and well-coordinated.

We have already begun to use these findings to implement changes in our emergency policies, protocols and practices. I am committed to ensuring that these efforts will lead to improved communications in the event of an emergency and here, too, we will keep the campus updated on the outcomes.

Finally, every member of my administration knows we have no greater responsibility than ensuring the safety and well-being of all members of our campus community. If you, or anyone you know, were impacted by this incident and are experiencing any residual issues, I encourage you to seek assistance from University Health Services or the dean’s office in Student Affairs. Please rest assured that we are sparing no effort in our quest to understand fully what caused the fire, and we will be equally diligent when it comes to acting on the knowledge we gain in the course of the technical investigation.