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Staged chemical spill a success as three buildings evacuated

A simulated chemical spill in the Ames Street lobby of Building E19 was staged Thursday to test MIT's emergency response capabilities and the possible impact a spill might have on business and communications systems.

The exercise, which was scripted by the SimTest Team, required the evacuation of between 500-800 persons from Buildings E17, E18 and E19. The test was triggered at approximately 10am when a delivery person entering an elevator caught the wheel of his cart and tipped a package of bottled chemicals, breaking a 2.5-liter bottle of "butyric acid." Oil of wintergreen was used to represent the noxious and mildly toxic chemical.

Campus police "treated" two "fumes victims" at the scene. Two others were taken to the MIT Medical Department by ambulance.

As fumes rose through the elevator shaft and began to permeate the buildings, the delivery person activated the hallway fire alarm and reported the spill to the Physical Plant Operations Center.

The Emergency Response Group activated separate alarms for Buildings E17 and E18 before commanding the evacuation. Campus Police arrived on the scene within minutes to cordon off the area and determine if the buildings were empty.

David Barber of Physical Plant, the incident commander, set up a command post in the Ford lot. Officials from the Cambridge Fire and Police departments observed the exercise, which kept evacuees on the street for less than an hour.

Data Security Manager Gerald I. Isaacson, co-chair of the SimTest Team and Business Continuity Management Team (BCMT) coordinator, said he was "pleasantly surprised" by the efficiency of the evacuation. He noted that only four people used the elevators to reach street level. He was less pleased with the number of persons who remained in the buildings after the alarms sounded.

In addition, Mr. Isaacson said it was disappointing that "a number of people looked at the 'hazardous material' in the lobby of E19 and ignored it, some even stepping over it. Real butyric acid smells so bad no one would go near the area," Mr. Isaacson said. He also noted that many odorless chemicals can be lethal and warned evacuees to avoid the area in the case of a real spill.

Mr. Isaacson said the impact on business (such as payroll in Building 19) and communications functions would have been minimal due to the recent decentralization of functions and ability to transfer them quickly. If the spill had been real, paychecks would have been issued on schedule.

A real spill would have required the evacuation of cancer patients at the Center for Cancer Research in Building 17. Two patients receiving infusions were exempted from the exercise.

"In a real hazardous spill," Mr. Isaacson said, "the Cambridge Fire Department would have taken over, and it would have been three to six hours before an all clear was declared. In those circumstances, critical business functions would be moved and some people released early."

Plans for the simulated spill were hatched 18 months ago when Mr. Isaacson enlisted Jerry Diaz, director of the Safety Office, to co-chair the SimTest Team and help organize the test. Other members of the team are Maija Ahlquist of the Center for Cancer Research, Rodney Edwards of the Medical Department, Captain David Carlson and Lt. James Cappucci of the Campus Police, Howard Harrison of Physical Plant, William McShea of Safety and Valerie Hartt of Information Systems.

Mr. Isaacson asked that any comments or suggestions on the Simtest be sent to

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on September 12, 1998.

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