Chemical spill reveals some flaws in MIT Alert

Vague emergency notifications sent out

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Emergency personnel from the Cambridge Fire Department and MIT respond to a hexane spill in Building 18 Tuesday afternoon.
tristan c. honscheid—The Tech

CORRECTION TO THIS ARTICLE: A previous version of this article incorrectly said that the gunman hoax incident occurred in April 2013. It actually occured in February 2013.

On Tuesday afternoon, a chemical spill in the Dreyfus Building (18) prompted the evacuation of the building and exposed problems in the campus-wide emergency communication process.

According to Richard J. Wilk, Administrative Officer for the Department of Chemistry, a four-liter glass bottle of liquid hexane, which has a high evaporation rate at room temperature, was spilled on the third floor of the Dreyfus Building. “The spill occurred while the bottle was being moved from a shipping container into a storage cabinet near the entrance to a room which is adjacent to a public corridor,” said Wilk in an email to The Tech.

Wilk said that there were no injuries and that the spill was contained to the area around the broken bottle. “Members of the Department of Chemistry followed MIT Environmental Health and Safety (EHS) procedures for the reporting and cleanup of a chemical spill,” said Wilk.

In an email to The Tech, Executive Vice President and Treasurer Israel Ruiz stated that the emergency response was as timely and effective as it had been for earlier campus emergencies. According to Ruiz, lab personnel notified the MIT Police of the chemical spill at 1:30 p.m., who then directed the personnel to pull the fire alarm and evacuate the building.

“The Cambridge Fire Department responded and was updated en route by MIT Police on the nature of emergency. MIT EHS responded to assist the Fire Department and to coordinate the clean up activities. The building was cleared for occupancy after a little over an hour,” said Ruiz.

However, Ruiz said that the process of notifying the community about the incident, including vague and ominous messages, was unsatisfactory. This view was echoed by Chief of Police John DiFava in an interview with The Tech.

“We had a problem with the alert system, no question about it. We failed to get a message out there that was purposeful,” he said.

The unclear MIT Alert notifications stemmed from the failure of the “bridge line” communication system, according to DiFava. The “bridge line” is a conference call system designed to facilitate communication between campus representatives from the MIT Police, EHS, the MIT Security and Emergency Management Office (SEMO), and the MIT News Office in order to decide upon the nature of the emergency alert.

Ruiz said that SEMO received notification of the fire alarm from the Dreyfus Building and then unsuccessfully attempted to set up the bridge line twice.

After this communications failure, the MIT Department of Facilities Operations Center sent a general “flare message” through MIT Alert to the entire campus, according to planned protocol, at around 1:45 p.m. The text of the alert read: “MIT is investigating report of a serious emergency on Campus. Emergency personnel are responding. STAY ALERT.”

The “flare message” system was introduced in the aftermath of the 2013 gunman hoax incident to quickly alert the MIT community about serious campus emergencies that threatened general safety. According to Ruiz, it was not intended to be used for incidents such as the chemical spill. DiFava added, “Instead of mitigating the concern of the public, I think we enhanced it. The information that came out was nebulous and there was no location or specific type of situation.”

Valentina De La Rosa ’17 also felt that the lack of information in the alerts overly worried people. In an email to The Tech, she said, “I have a friend whose mother heard about the spill and called her. She said her mother sounded very worried about the situation. MIT made the spill seem a lot worse than it actually was.”

Ten minutes after the release of the flare message, MIT Alert sent out a second notification stating that there was a hazardous materials emergency, but the specific location of the emergency was not stated. A third notification included the building number of the Dreyfus Building.

The MIT Alert system is designed to notify students by text, email, and voicemail about public health or life safety emergencies, according to the MIT Alert website. In order to receive these alerts, students must sign up for the service on the website by providing their contact information.

The MIT Police Twitter account also rebroadcast the alerts, and detailed updates were posted on the MIT Emergency Information website. DiFava said that using these channels of communication are currently the only way that the system can get enough information out to enough people in the right manner.

Looking ahead, DiFava stated that the overall process needs to be streamlined to ensure that a timely and accurate message is sent out to campus. “We still need the conference bridge to manage the situation and decide where we’re going to go with it, but for the first few minutes we need to take it out of the situation,” said DiFava.

Ruiz said that MIT is already taking steps to improve the emergency notification protocol, and that the incident served as a useful test of the campus alert capability and response time.

“Clearly, much more work and some key changes need to happen and will be happening soon,” Ruiz said.

anusood almost 8 years ago

good test of the communication system and improve it. is this the first time it has been used since the 2013 bombing and related incidents? the flare notification should state that updates will be provided if any specific action is required of the public. also, the general nature and location of the emergency could be added to the flare notice -- in this case something like "contained hazmat release" and "in chemistry lab area" etc. if this additional info is not in the initial flare notice, it could be an immediate follow up notice. also, the notice should indicate that updated info will be provided as available.

in general, a one gallon spill of hexane is probably not a huge issue other than possibly starting a fire or small explosion. i assume that the entire building is under positive pressure with ventilation exhausting through some exhaust emission filtration system for organic compounds. does anyone have details about that which could be shared here?

Anonymous almost 8 years ago

The website continued to say that there was no emergency on campus for many minutes after the MIT Alert message was sent out, adding to the confusion. What a mess.

Anonymous almost 8 years ago

The same thing happened with the phone app. It said that there was no emergency on campus. I am not sure for how long because I stopped looking after three attempts.

Diane Duerst almost 8 years ago

As a parent, in WI, I received both a text message alert and a recorded call. It would have been nice if the website had more info. My imagination did go a little wild with no info given. But I appreciate MIT's efforts and I would rather receive the notification I did than none at all! Thanks MIT!