Never has COEH alumna Jennifer Hatfield's training in occupational health nursing been tested more keenly than it has in the past six months, as legislators and the staff of the state Capitol have wrestled with solving the state's energy crisis against the backdrop of a bizarre workplace disaster that took one life and disrupted the lives of hundreds of others. Here is her experience.
January 16, 2001. The speaker of the Assembly had just tapped his gavel, wrapping up the Assembly session for the night, when an explosion on the opposite side of the building rocked the room. In her office, Occupational Health Nurse Jennifer Hatfield, MS '98, UC San Francisco, heard a loud thud, and her TV rattled.
"I thought it was the janitors dropping a heavy desk above me," she recalled. Moments later the fire alarm sounded. A big rig, its horn blaring, had barreled up the sidewalk, rammed the south side of the state Capitol just under the Senate chambers, and burst into flame, destroying a granite portico and setting an unoccupied Senate committee hearing room ablaze. The driver, a man with a history of mental illness, died instantly.
"It looked like a war scene," Hatfield said. "It was very upsetting, but everyone knew how to evacuate the building properly, and we got everyone out in a calm and orderly fashion."
Once outside, however, the evacuation procedure frayed slightly around the edges.
"People didn't know their designated safety areas," Hatfield said, "and, despite the best efforts of the California Highway Patrol to keep gawkers away from the scene of the crash, it was amazing that a few people got safely out of the building only to circle back over there, even while the truck was still burning!"
In the months ahead, she and her colleagues would take steps to ensure that people knew their safety stations and would designate more people to direct the way to these stations, but, for the moment, Hatfield had to focus on immediate health and safety needs. One woman needed emergency care for smoke inhalation. Two people sprained their ankles running around in the dark looking for co-workers. And one man became distressed, because the fire reminded him of losing his house twice in fires.
"Most companies would have closed their doors the next day, but the Rules Committees wanted to show the public that we wouldn't be deterred-plus we were right in the middle of the electricity crisis (still are!) and were under tremendous pressure. I slept maybe four hours that night and the following nights, and some of the top managers didn't sleep at all for over two days. We were in constant surveillance making sure the building was safe."
The next morning, as legislators and staff returned to the damaged building, Hatfield and her co-worker called upon psychologists specially trained in post-traumatic crisis counseling to help anyone who felt the need to talk.
"The counselors explained that, immediately after a disaster like this, people become very task oriented. They suggested that we keep monitoring for a week or so, because that's when people become sad and weepy. I did find this to be the case. We're a big family, here, and I wanted to make sure that people who needed to grieve could do so. It was also very important to show everyone that our upper management cared and were providing support for them. Bringing in counselors immediately was one way to show they did care."
As the smoke residue and the odor of the disaster lingered, Hatfield treated people for nosebleeds and dryness in their throat and eyes and helped them relocate to other offices, if needed.
In the aftermath of the fire, water from the sprinkler system seeped into the basement, carrying diesel fuel with it. The basement had to be closed for three months so that sheet rock and carpeting that had soaked up the fuel could be replaced and the basement monitored for toxic mold.
"Industrial hygienists came in every morning before work hours and tested the building," she said. "To allay everyone's fears about exposures, we held meetings where employees could hear what was being done from the hygienists and the contractors. Occasionally, my co-worker and I brought the hygienists in to talk with people who were especially fearful that their office wasn't being taken care of properly. Communication with employees was very important, and we did not take it lightly. I felt it helped tremendously in getting everyone back to business quickly."
Assuaging fears was Hatfield's biggest challenge. "We were starting the cold and flu season, and, when people came in worried about smoke exposure, I had to gently assess what was going on. Mostly, we used TLC and educated them about the different symptoms for allergies, colds, and smoke inhalation. If they felt they were having an allergic reaction related to the odors, we sent them to their physician."
Hatfield learned that getting through the disaster itself "wasn't nearly as tough as putting out the 'fires' after the fire."
"It's amazing how long it takes to get things back to normal. It will take over a year to restore our Capital, and I don't think it will ever be the same," she said.
Analyzing what went right about the Capitol's response to the disaster, Hatfield said, "Our highest priority was communication. We needed to coordinate our command structure with the Fire Department, and it worked as it had in our drills. The CHP called the evacuation. Our Assembly and Senate sergeants evacuated the building, quickly set up a command post, and then worked closely with the Fire Department when they arrived. Communication was a major key in keeping this disaster from turning into chaos."
To make disaster response even more effective in the future, Hatfield and her colleagues have placed vests and emergency kits for first responders at all the fire hoses in the Capitol so that, if another evacuation is ever called, volunteers designated to search offices and direct people out of the building will know exactly where to find vests and equipment. They are also planning better ways to get people to designated safety areas, especially in the dark.
"We don't have a perfect answer, because this is a public building, open to visitors, but we know that our system for room by room checks works, and we're improving our capacity to move people to safety fast," she said.
In recent months, with legislators and staff under continuing pressure to solve California's energy problems, symptoms related to stress and overwork from that effort have claimed most of Hatfield's attention. "Indigestion, chest pains, headaches-sometimes we just need to tell people to stop working and go to lunch!" she laughed.
PHOTO CREDITS: Photo of accident courtesy of The Sacramento Bee, Bryan Patrick. Photo of Jennifer Hatfield courtesy of Jennifer Hatfield.