Emergency Exercise Tests the 'What Ifs'

September 16, 2009

September 16, 2009 — It was a very warm and muggy football Saturday at the University of Virginia's Scott Stadium. The Cavaliers and their fans were charged up for an important game against the University of Maryland.

Listen to the UVA Today Radio Show report on this story:

All afternoon, bad weather had threatened, but not enough to postpone or cancel the game.

Ten minutes into the first quarter, heavy thunder and lightning were detected in the area.

And the question became: Now what?

That was the scenario Wednesday morning for an emergency exercise at U.Va. involving 29 agencies from U.Va., the City of Charlottesville and Albemarle County. The exercise not only tested communications and response among the various agencies, but also how an evacuation of Scott Stadium would be handled and how patrons would be readmitted after the weather passed.

Marge Sidebottom, U.Va.'s director of emergency preparedness, said the scenario was not science fiction. During last year's season-opening game against the University of Southern California, she and other emergency planners were tracking a severe storm.

She said a drill like the one on Wednesday is a chance to build "muscle memory" that will kick in during a real emergency.

"There's nothing like actually going through the actions," she said. "We are able to ask questions and identify areas where the responses can be improved."

At around 10:10 a.m. Wednesday, the public-address announcer in Scott Stadium announced to the "fans" in the stands that threatening weather was nearby and to be prepared to move to safety. A few minutes later, the game was suspended and fans were asked by ushers to evacuate.

All the while, the sound of rolling thunder washed across the stadium – virtual thunder, supplied by a recording plugged into the public-address system. Meanwhile, participants responded to unexpected events, such as injuries, media questions and patrons who didn't want to move.

At 11:20 a.m., the announcement came that the storm had passed, the stadium would reopen and the game would resume.

Leonard W. Sandridge, executive vice president and chief operating officer, said Wednesday's exercise was all about ensuring the safety of our guests who attend events at Scott Stadium.

"We work regularly with representatives of the city, county, event staff and local responders at events, but today's exercise was an opportunity to examine our collective response to an emergency situation that does not happen often," he said.

The University, Sandridge added, emphasizes continuous improvement in everything it does. "This was an occasion to measure our performance and ability to handle a weather emergency against those same high standards," he said.

Sidebottom said it's also important for the University to take every opportunity to strengthen its working relationships with the city and county. "Today was a chance to continue those relationships," she said.

— By Marian Anderfuren