TSRI Copes with Fallout from Fires

By Mika Ono

No one could have predicted the turn of events this week. News of raging fires, anxiety about homes and loved ones, and dark, acrid air permeated The Scripps Research Institute (TSRI) campus, like much of the larger San Diego region.

"The fires have had an emotional impact on many of us here," says Keith McKeown, vice president of communications and public relations for TSRI. "Those with homes threatened by the fires have had immediate, pressing concerns. Others have been worried about family, friends, and co-workers. Thankfully, the physical facilities at the institute remain intact and we are back to science as usual."

The predominant impact of the fires on the TSRI campus has been poor air quality. "There were high levels of particulate matter all around the region," says Ben Morris, vice president of facilities services. "Except for some specialized scientific facilities, most buildings simply aren't designed to cope with these kinds of conditions."

The institute remained open throughout the week, with the flexibility for employees to stay home or leave early if needed. There was no damage to facilities or major health problems for staff.

Judith Muñoz, vice president of Human Resources, notes that because of the unprecedented situation and constantly changing conditions, it was a challenge to meet both the essential needs of employees and the essential needs of the institute.

"Determining the appropriate practices during an emergency is never easy," Muñoz says. "We greatly appreciate those who were able to come to work and recognize that others had health or personal concerns that kept them from coming to work. Our first concern during the emergency situation has been the health and safety of our employees and their families."

Employees who reported for work performed their jobs, adapting to the unusual environmental conditions as needed. Some support departments limited outside work and heavy lifting as much as possible. Employees driving vehicles often turned their headlights on—even in the middle of the day—to increase visibility.

Other departments, such as Environmental Health & Safety, were flooded with calls for more information. "Part of our job is to respond to emergencies such as this," says Carolyn Keierleber, director of Environmental Health & Safety, whose department received upwards of 50 extra calls at the beginning of the week. "We walked around, let people know that they could go home if they were feeling ill, and provided information on air safety."

Keierleber notes that misconceptions about face masks were common. "Ordinary face masks can be useful outside to filter out ash," she says. "However, since these masks don't trap microscopic particles, wearing them indoors really doesn't increase safety."

In the wake of the fires, TSRI instituted an emergency notification system on the work status at the institute, in which employees can call (858) 784-7000 to hear a recorded message. Even though the system was set up in response to the events of this week, the number will be available in any future regional emergency.

Jan Hill, director of the Counseling and Postdoctoral Services Department, expects that the emotional toll of the disaster on employees will continue. "It often takes a couple of days for a catastrophe like this to sink in," she says, emphasizing that her department continues to offer free, confidential counseling for employees and their families.

Some employees have asked if TSRI will collect donations for co-workers who have been affected by the fires. Those who wish to volunteer or make donations to fire victims and their families are directed to nonprofit agencies serving the San Diego region, including:

  • American Red Cross: Online donations can be made at www.redcross.org or call 1-800-HELPNOW.

  • Volunteer San Diego: Disaster recovery volunteers can sign up at www.volunteersandiego.org .

  • St. Vincent de Paul Village: Mail donations to Attn: Fire Relief Fund, 3350 "E" Street, San Diego, Ca 92102.

  • The San Diego Foundation: "After-the-Fire Fund" online donations can be made at www.sdfoundation.org.

  • Meals on Wheels for Greater San Diego: This organization is helping homebound seniors affected by fire. To make donations or to volunteer, call 1-800-573-6467.

  • San Diego Humane Society: The society is providing services for evacuated animals. Call (619) 299-7012.

  • San Diego Animal Services: Call (858) 755-1161, x2026 to make donations for evacuated animals.

Additional disaster relief information and related resources can be found at the Counseling and Postdoctoral Services Department web site.



The fires burning in the San Diego region made for a historic skyline. Photo by Kevin Fung.