Humboldt State University

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Power Shutdown at HSU: Hard Work and Community Spirit - Humboldt State Now

Power Shutdown at HSU: Hard Work and Community Spirit

Efforts large and small saw Humboldt State University through the latest round of PG&E power shutdowns--an event that caused plenty of angst as classes were canceled for three days and regular work was put on hold due to closure of campus.

A student studies outside during the power shutdown.
If the positive energy at the (generator-powered) J was any indication, the University community mostly took things in stride.

As far as “large” efforts, food service was one of the most obvious. Dining staff served thousands of free meals to students, faculty, staff, and family members. Fun fact: At one dinner time alone they served more than 1,500 people.

Another major effort was the work by the facilities team, which kept generators operating in key locations, locked down buildings, prepped buildings to be re-opened, and much more. With predicted shutdown hours changing throughout the week, they were able to switch from grid power to generator power, and back, with little interruption of services. Another fun fact: Over one 12-hour period, two staff members hand-pumped more than 1,200 gallons of fuel for the generators.

Then there were the staff and student employees who stayed up overnight for mandatory “fire watch” in residence halls once there wasn’t enough power for the fire alarm systems. Others who scrambled to answer questions about academic programs and classwork expectations, and to find solutions to staffing and pay issues. University Police increased staffing and patrols throughout the closure, communications staff shared timely messages, and the Campus Operator team answered questions from callers near and far.

There were individuals from across campus who stepped up to counsel students, provide academic advice, reassure family members, join students for a meal, and more.

It all made the power shutdown caused by weather/PG&E a little less frustrating. Maybe, some have speculated, it will even be a good memory and fun story someday.

The overall response was coordinated by the team in HSU’s Emergency Operations Center, which ultimately expanded to more than 30 individuals representing various areas of campus. The group gathered for work sessions in the SBS Welcome Center, the space designated for such purposes during an incident (though they moved once due to a failed generator and another time to clear the way for payroll processing). EOC staff also coordinated closely with the State Office of Emergency Services, the County EOC, local law enforcement, the City of Arcata, and other key partners.

“I’m just so impressed by the professionalism I saw all across this University during the shutdown, and with the resiliency of our University community,” says HSU President Tom Jackson. “Thank you to everyone for doing your part to support our students, keep our campus safe, and, ultimately, get us back up and running.”

The decisions to close campus and cancel classes were not easy. Campus leaders knew that the disruption of the shutdown would be costly, with untold hours of learning, teaching, athletics, and work lost. But the decision was ultimately about safety and well-being.

Once the decision to close was made, key priorities were supporting students who live on- and off-campus campus, and allowing faculty and staff a place to gather and connect with students.
The Jolly Giant Commons became the central community hub on campus. It was powered by a large generator, rented as part of advance planning and towed up from the Bay Area. In addition to plenty of food, the J offered all-important charging stations for phones and other devices. Housing staff also made sure there were plenty of social activities, games, and movies on the big-screen.

Students who live off-campus were offered the option of staying in the residence halls during the shutdown. And visiting athletes from Cal Poly Pomona stayed in the residence halls one night after their hotel informed them they wouldn’t be able to stay due to the shutdown.

Near the end of the shutdown, some equipment was relocated to the J so that the Lumberjack newspaper could prepare its most recent print edition.

Of course, not everything went as smoothly as a well-written plan.There were plenty of challenges during the power shutdown and subsequent threat of a second shutdown.

Multiple older generators failed completely or had to be repaired, keeping staff busy swapping out generators from other less-essential areas. Communications from PG&E was often contradictory or unclear. And without clarity from PG&E for days on if and when they would shutdown or restore power, the University had to remain closed.

Staff sometimes had to scramble to procure enough food, extra warm blankets, and other supplies. Despite efforts to communicate frequently, staff who handle the campus operator phone line were occasionally blitzed with key questions that hadn’t been anticipated.

All that, and more, will be discussed and documented at an upcoming “hot wash” of the team at the Emergency Operations Center and the Policy Management Group. The successes and shortcomings will help inform not only responses to the expected future power shutdowns, but to the capacity of the campus to respond to all types of crises and emergencies.

Another way HSU is looking ahead is attempting secure recently announced grant funding from the state of California for the purchase of additional generation. And given that power shutdowns are expected to continue in future years, campus staff and HSU’s Schatz Energy Research Center are exploring the possibility of building out a local microgrid that would assist in keeping the campus operating in times of blackout.

In phone calls, emails, and social media, HSU saw a lot of appreciation appreciation for these efforts, particularly from families.

Thank you for taking good care of our daughter and pals. Community!

Thank you all for helping look after our kids! You are amazing!

And a student shared:

Thank you for your decisive and productive reactions to these power outages—with such misinformation coming from PG&E and other sources, it puts my mind at ease to know that HSU is making decisions that are clearly best for the campus community. Thank you for feeding, sheltering, and entertaining all students, staff, and faculty. I am a new graduate student but I feel right at home here because I am so obviously in very good hands under your leadership and care!

Dining Services provided free meals during the power shutdown.