SMC Corsair / SMDP Staff Writer
SMC campus police chief Johnnie Adams was in the hot seat this month when SMC officials asked him to explain the initial decision to keep the school open during the Oct. 28 Getty Fire.
The Getty Fire broke out in the early hours of the morning on Monday, Oct. 28 near the Getty Center and the proximity of the wildfire to Santa Monica led all schools in the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District to close for the day. However, SMC initially remained open, with school officials sending out notices via email, phone, and text informing students that classes would continue as normal.
An official statement released on Twitter read, “For most, SMC remains accessible. Current air quality is not in the unhealthy range. As long as the college is accessible & air quality does not present a health risk, normal operations continue.”
The decision drew outcry from students, many of whom voiced their frustration on social media.
“The air outside is almost unbreathable. Shame on you, SMC,” Ciara Morgan wrote. She later added, “Just close the school! So many students will be unable to make it to class. You’re robbing those people of their education.”
Other students posted images of their mobile devices, which showed the weather condition as smoky, rather than the usual rainy, cloudy, sunny, or windy.
Dr. Zab Mosenifar, a lung specialist who also serves as executive chair of the Department of Medicine at Cedar-Sinai, said, “Even if you cannot see the smoke and particles, be aware that they are still there and still harmful.”
“Small particles in the air can travel hundreds of miles. While the immediate danger is within a 25-mile radius of a fire — depending on the winds — particles travel and float in the air for up to two weeks after the fire is out …When inhaled, smoke and small particles — which consist of water vapor, carbon monoxide and ash — can cause both short-term and long-term damage to the airways and lungs,” Mosenifar added. The distance between the Getty Center and SMC’s main campus is approximately nine miles.
“So on this fire like any disaster that occurs or natural disaster, we’re always learning. And I think that’s the important thing, you know, we had lessons learned and we debriefed some of the things internally on how to deal with things,” Chief Adams said.
The decision to cancel classes is not made unilaterally. According to Grace Smith, SMC’s Public Information Officer, “the decision to close campus is made by members of senior staff — the Superintendent/President or her designee with the counsel of Chief Adams and others under his leadership who are monitoring the situation actively.”
Chief Adams explained the process that goes into monitoring conditions during disasters. “Usually enough, I’ll get up around three o’clock in the morning and start looking at the news so that we can get the information to Dr. Jeffery and the rest of the team by 4:30, so that we can make a decision by 5:30, six o’clock,” Adams said, “which is very important because we know that a lot of people are travelling around.”
Adams also provided a brief overview of the metrics that the school uses to decide whether or not campus should close.
“We’ve now worked with looking at air quality, we’ve looked at wind speed, wind direction because that’s very important on which way the wind will go and depending on the projections of that, how we look at things within the college,” Adams said.
Shortly after 9 a.m., SMC sent out another round of notices, this time informing students that campus would indeed close for the day. At the time, many students were already on campus.
Trustee Barry Snell pressed Chief Adams on his knowledge of the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District’s decision to close their schools hours earlier and that many SMC students had to travel from much further out.
“We also looked at that as well,” Adams said. “When the 405 closed, that was another indicator that we had to look at things, we also look at the 5.” In addition, Adams said that he is now following CHP and LADOT on Twitter to stay up to date on road closures that may affect students.
Chief Adams stressed that this was a learning experience.
“We learnt from that that it was very important to communicate not only with the City of Santa Monica and the Unified so that we could stay consistent in our message to everybody because when one institution closes down it does affect the others,” he said.
“I think on this incident itself we learned a lot,” Adams said, “and I thought that we made some good decisions as well.”