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Executive Board column: Fire, power cut, evacuate...

We take it for granted that water comes out of the tap and electricity out of the socket. But that isn’t always the case. Last Tuesday began like any other day, with our board meeting in the morning. But things were soon to change.

There at the door of the meeting room was our Director of Real Estate, Ferdy Poppelier. Smoke was coming out of a ‘medium-voltage substation’, he said, at the Leiden Bio Science Park (LBSP).

In this column Annetje Ottow, Hester Bijl and Martijn Ridderbos give a peek behind the scenes at the Executive Board of Leiden University. What does their work involve? What sparks their enthusiasm? What challenges do they face? Building on a healthy, engaged and learning community begins with sharing what you are up to. This time it’s the turn of Martijn Ridderbos.

Fortunately, there were no victims but the power had gone out in many of our buildings and hundreds of students and staff were there. And there were exams going on at the University Sports Centre.

The buildings had to be evacuated almost immediately because without power essential installations stop working, the sprinklers for example, which made it unsafe to work or study there.

The crisis teams (DCT) from the affected faculties and services set to work straight away. Thanks to some fantastic teamwork, the buildings were quickly evacuated, which was no mean feat. Staff from our Science, Archaeology and Social and Behavioural Sciences faculties and the Sports Centre, the ICT Shared Service Centre (ISSC), the University Services Department (UFB) and the University Libraries Leiden (UBL) ensured this all went smoothly.

At 11:00 I sat in our university offices in the first hybrid meeting of the day with the DCT members to assess the situation: What was happening and what needed to happen? At that point we have the full picture but we did know that the fire hadn’t yet been extinguished because Liander hadn’t been able to cut the power to the substation. And in the meantime, the media had started calling, and the faculties and central departments had to communicate with our students and staff as best they could, even though much was still unclear.

The hard work continued through the night; dozens of people had volunteered for this.

We met again at 14.00 and this time knew more: there had been a cable fire and the door of the boiler house had burst open. The fire had since been put out, so we could make recovery plans. Our Real Estate service unit set to work to figure out how to restore the power to our buildings as soon as possible. We drew up plans and scenarios for questions such as: When (and how) can staff/researchers return to their labs and offices? And when can students return to their studies and lectures? Can the exams go ahead in the Sports Centre on Wednesday and the days after? What needs to be done to achieve that?

In the next meeting, at 17:30, Real Estate had already made a good plan for the evening and night. We would reconnect the buildings to the power in phases and were confident everything would be up and running once again the next day. To ensure that the exams would go ahead for our students, together with UFB and others we found an alternative location for some of them: they were held in Pieterskerk on Wednesday. The faculties and degree programmes informed their students as soon as possible. So there was a lot to do and the hard work continued through the night. Dozens of people had volunteered for this.

I’m incredibly proud of everyone who worked so hard to achieve this.

This entailed not only repairing the substation but also securing our premises as night began to fall and ensuring that the emergency generators continued working for our fume cupboards, freezers and other essential installations. At three in the morning, the first apps arrived from colleagues saying that it had worked and at around five we knew that all the buildings were once again connected to the power. What a relief!

I’m incredibly proud of everyone who worked so hard to achieve this and of our students and staff who had to leave the buildings in a hurry, which is quite something. We have shown we can respond to a major emergency.

Everyone in the DCTs and beyond – companies like Liander, Huschka and Heijmans – knew what they had to do and set to work to achieve this, also through the night. I’m really impressed. We regularly celebrate our researchers but you don’t hear as much about our support staff. But we wouldn’t have got the job done without them.

People with a passion for their job – they’re not always visible but are essential nonetheless. They are available 24/7 in crises and will spring into action for others without a second thought. They make sure our teaching and research can continue for our students and staff. What a fantastic achievement!

I’m hoping there won’t be another colleague at the door next Tuesday bearing similar news and that it will be a long time before the next crisis rears its ugly head. But when it does, with these people I have complete faith that we can resolve things together. I can’t thank them enough.

Email your stories or comments to nieuws@leidenuniv.nl.

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