January 18, 2022

Meet Gus Bannan, an emergency management specialist and the Lab’s Preparedness Supervisor for the Security and Emergency Services division. In a nutshell, Gus is one of the first to respond to any Lab emergency and he helps lead the team during critical incidents and makes sure the Lab can continue functioning safely and securely after a crisis. We talked to Gus about how the Lab prepares for inevitable, and unforeseen emergencies and he explained the important role of the Lab’s Critical Incident Management Group (CIMG).

What is the CIMG and what role does it play at the Lab?

The Critical Incident Management Group is the nucleus around which the emergency response organization forms. It’s usually a roster of between three and seven individuals, who rotate on a weekly duty schedule, and are led by an incident commander. When an incident is reported – usually through the SOC (Site Operations Center) – the CIMG is in charge of assessing the situation and ensuring the right resources are brought to bear to respond appropriately to the incident.

It doesn't matter what kind of emergency it is: We apply the National Incident Management System, or more specifically the Incident Command System, and break things down into simpler bites, and then bring in the right people with the expertise we might need from around the Lab so we can accomplish what we need to to get through a crisis.

For example, we might bring in people from a certain science division or area, or building managers themselves. Security and Fire personnel will probably play a role if the emergency has anything to do with an alarm or anything to do with a physical breach at the Lab. In addition, for a wide variety of operational and logistical issues we would also bring in the usual players: Strategic Communications, Government & Community Relations, Facilities, and EH&S for safety and environmental concerns.

The Lab recently faced a critical shortfall in supplies of liquid nitrogen, an essential element needed for scores of experiments. How did your team prepare and respond?

While it wasn’t an earthquake or a wildfire, it was an emergency nevertheless. Similar to a Public Safety Power Shutoff (PSPS), Lab personnel have prepared for these types of shortages in what you would call critical commodities.

Back around Thanksgiving, we received a force majeure letter stating that supplies of liquid nitrogen would be low across the entire Bay Area. CIMG personnel on duty identified this as a problem we needed to address and a stand-alone team was formed, with the Lab’s Business Continuity Coordinator Ayla Quesda as its planning section chief. Both of us were removed from the rotating duty schedule for a couple of weeks to just focus on this issue. We formed a team with experts from various science divisions, including building managers and individual tank owners or specialists who have oversight of the 10 different tanks around the Lab. This team reduced unnecessary use, while conserving and adapting to the shortage, and monitoring the status of the tanks and the deliveries.

What’s the most important aspect of the CIMG for the Lab?

The CIMG helps the Lab transition from daily operations to emergencies that require internal or external experts to rectify that emergency or event.

The way that a lot of people think of emergencies is that you flip a switch and you go from daily operations to, “Hey we're in an emergency!” It's better to think of the response more like a spectrum, where you slowly slide towards an emergency from which you will then slowly slide back. That way you reduce the risk of human error due to abrupt change. If you're just flipping a switch on and off then you're not giving people a chance to slowly see or prepare for an emergency and that’s terribly inefficient.

Take the recent liquid nitrogen crisis. That’s an interesting one, because it’s on the edge of being an emergency all the time. You never really want it to become a critical emergency, so you prepare and you mitigate as much as you can. In this most recent case, I think it actually worked extremely well because when we first were notified and started experiencing shortages we were able to communicate with stakeholders in a variety of areas and ramp up our response quickly.

The CIMG surveyed the 10 bulk tanks that receive liquid nitrogen, noted the size of the tanks in different locations, and how often they were receiving deliveries. We also surveyed the users to determine when bulk LN was needed versus when cylinder gas could be used. So, we communicated with the delivery truck and tweaked schedules to maximize deliveries of the limited supplies of liquid nitrogen we were able to receive. Deliveries continued, in a diminished capacity, but it continued to flow. And that agility is what’s needed during an emergency.

Emergencies can touch anybody, whether you're talking about an earthquake or wildfire happening in the Bay Area – the big things that people most worry about. But you also have smaller emergencies. I don't think most people considered a liquid nitrogen shortage an emergency before November. But in addition to that type of emergency, we also have fire alarms and gas alarms go off, buildings flood, car accidents occur. We work in a hazardous material facility, and anybody can be affected by an emergency at any time.

What I hope people at the Lab know is that if you get a call from the CIMG you should understand, we're here to help, we're here to support you and we follow the priorities of preserving life, the environment, our property, and getting back to the science we conduct.

To learn more about the Emergency Management at Berkeley Lab click on the link:

Emergency Management Service