How a university survived back-to-back disasters and the lessons learned

by FM Media
0 comment

University of Canterbury’s estate and asset manager, PETER MOLONY tells the story of the university’s experience of the September 2010 and February 2011 earthquakes – how it responded and the lessons that were learned.

From the University of Canterbury’s perspective, preparation for the earthquakes had thankfully commenced some years earlier in 2006. As is so often the case in emergency management preparedness, our organisation benefitted from the dedicated enthusiasm and expertise of a relatively small group of university personnel.
As an organisation, we also benefitted from early collaboration with our colleagues from other universities and by the visit of our primary incident controller to a range of American universities, including Virginia Tech, New Orleans and Northridge California, on a study tour in 2008.
In the years preceding the first of our earthquakes, which occurred in September 2010, we had developed an emergency response plan and had well-defined roles and responsibilities, including the role of the senior management team. We had also carried out coordinated incident management system (CIMS) training for key staff and had developed an on-campus emergency operations centre (EOC).

The EOC was activated for real for the first time on Saturday 4 September 2010.

  • 04:35 – 7.1 earthquake
  • 04:55 – first emergency team member on site
  • 05:15 – incident controller on site
  • 05:30 – initial briefing completed, priorities set and vice chancellor advised of site status via telephone
  • 06:00 – emergency management team members arriving and vice chancellor on site, and
  • 08:00 – fully functional incident response team on site.

The university was closed for two weeks while buildings were inspected and emergency repairs took place. A remedial program of building repair then commenced. We were determined to improve the resilience of our buildings by adopting such measures as:

  • the removal and replacement of heavy plaster ceiling tiles with lightweight tiles, concentrating in the main on public and student spaces of large volume and high student numbers
  • the installation of flexible bends in sprinkler systems and ventilation ducts
  • the systematic checking and replacement of seismic restraint mechanisms for equipment, and
  • putting in place continual survey and a restraint program for large storage cabinets and four-drawer filing cabinets.

The remedial work continued over the summer months. One million library books were picked up off the floor and reshelved in the 11-storey James Hight Library.
Following around 4500 aftershocks, the new 2011 academic year commenced on 21 February and on the following day a catastrophic earthquake with a magnitude of 6.3 occurred just 13 kilometres from Christchurch’s CBD. Once again, we were in full emergency mode.

Fortunately, there were no serious injuries on campus, but the rest of the city was not so fortunate. One hundred and eighty five people died and many more suffered serious injury. There could have been upwards of 15,000 people on campus at the time of the earthquake and some of our buildings suffered severe structural damage.
It was obvious that a different approach was required to checking our buildings, as reports were coming from the city of catastrophic building failure. From an early point, a five-point plan was developed to ensure we had confidence in our buildings before we re-entered them for use.
The process that we developed post 22 February continues to provide a high level of confidence in the seismic performance of our buildings and a level of structural integrity to enable safe evacuation of occupants as further earthquakes/aftershock events occur.
The five-point plan identified buildings in which we were not confident in terms of future performance and we did not re-enter those buildings. Eighteen months down the track from the February earthquake, we still haven’t re-entered some buildings. We identified two buildings that, although not badly damaged, were potential collapse hazards and they have now been demolished.
The university opened three weeks after the event and a promise was made to students to deliver a full high-quality academic year’s program. We graduated from teaching in tents to the erection of 15,000 square metres of single-storey timber temporary buildings in the space of progressive delivery over four months and provided a range of open-plan office and teaching space accommodation.


Phase 1: Safe access
A first-pass structural and hazard identification check to ensure the building is safe for access. This is carried out by our structural assessment team.

Phase 2: Structural assessment
Structural engineers undertake a detailed assessment of any damage sustained in the earthquake. The process is thorough and may include opening up parts of the building in order to inspect key elements of the structure where damage may be anticipated.
We requested our engineers, who were armed with the structural drawings of our buildings, to run a desktop consultancy to determine their view of how each of our buildings would perform should a maximum credible event occur close to campus. In effect we were asking: what would be the result of the level of earthquake felt in the city being experienced here on campus?

Phase 3: Life systems
A check of building systems including fire protection systems, emergency lighting and alarms, ventilation systems, lifts data and security systems to identify work required. Fume cupboards and gas reticulation are checked where installed.

Phase 4: Repair and recommission
Undertake remedial work as identified in phases one, two, three and four.

Phase 5: Compliance (building warrant of fitness)
A formal documented process of checking that all building systems are operational and in compliance with their current building warrant of fitness. This is governed by a process of inspection, audit and sign-off by independent qualified engineers.

Lessons learned in the September event served us well in the time following the February quake and reinforced these learnings:

  • Develop, in advance, strategies for alternative EOC locations and, more importantly, alternative EOC staff. Recognise that staff may attempt to over deliver at these times and that rest breaks away from the organisation and away from the city will be important revivers. The reality is that some team members will also be personally affected and it is essential to have multiple personnel trained in the various required roles.
  • Concentrate on communications within the team. Well-run, all-inclusive briefings are valuable to ensure that the maximum number of people know what we all know.
  • Focus on recovery in the course of the event and switch to ‘renewal’ as soon as practicable to ensure that opportunities are taken to provide betterment and that the organisation springs forward rather than bouncing back to where it was.
  • Understand that staff members have had widely different experiences of the earthquake and accept that some will take longer to be confident and that some will need coaching before working again in a high-rise environment.

Our own account of the earthquakes recognised that when you are in the midst of a response it is so easy to think that it is just those in your immediate circle of contacts who are working the long hours and giving their all. The reality is, in an organisation as large and diverse as a university, people across the campus are working just as hard, doing things you hadn’t even thought of, but which are equally as important to the future of the organisation.

Peter Molony is the estate and asset manager of the University of Canterbury. He would like to acknowledge the work of Chris Hawker, Jacqui Lyttle and Dr Erica Seville. The University of Canterbury’s emergency management resources ( offer more information.

This website uses cookies to improve your experience. We'll assume you're ok with this, but you can opt-out if you wish. Accept Read More