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Q&A with Garry MacPherson

Being Director of Environmental Health & Safety (EH&S) at UC San Diego is a 24/7 job that requires quick thinking, resourcefulness and preparation. Fortunately, we have Garry Mac Pherson leading the department, and he is a self-professed "Plan B type of guy." He came to UC San Diego in 2009 after serving more than 30 years as a fire division chief in fire prevention, emergency management services, and operations and training for the City of Poway. On any given day on campus, he's dealing with a wide range of high-tech and low-tech issues, from coyotes to cancer research. In this interview, Mac Pherson talks about the significant role EH&S has at UC San Diego and how the campus dealt with the recent regional power outage.

What is the role of EH&S on campus?


Mac Pherson: The primary role of EH&S is to serve our faculty, staff and students with a full array of health and safety services that support our academic and research efforts. EH&S is composed of five divisions: Research Safety, Fire & Life Safety, Environmental Affairs, Risk Management and Occupational Health Safety, and Radiation Safety. We cover everything from safety training to hazardous waste management to pest control. In many instances, local, state and federal government regulatory agencies dictate our compliance levels with regards to research, building construction and design, and lab safety. EH&S touches every single department on this campus. We also work with the UC San Diego Healthy System community, and we have 125 off-campus locations that we provide service to, generally in the form of lab spaces and hazardous waste pick-up.


How has your background prepared you for your current role?


Mac Pherson: For the last 33 years, I have managed resources at the local government level, serving a community of approximately 50,000 residents. I have managed emergency services (police and fire), public works, finance, personnel and risk management. When I worked for the city of Poway's Department of Safety Services, I served as an incident commander during the 2003 fires and as a director of an Emergency Operations Center (EOC) during the 2007 fires. In both of those instances, the primary goals were managing resources, collaborating with other government agencies, and making multiple and difficult policy decisions as to resource deployment and triage. That definitely prepared me for my current role. And the main lesson that I took away is that preparedness matters, at home and at work.


As the director of UC San Diego's Emergency Operations Center (EOC) during the power outage, what was your role in the EOC?


Mac Pherson: My job, and the EOC's job, is to do two things — to provide the resources people need and to provide policy direction, which could be simple prioritization or solving challenges that arise. During the power outage, we did some shuffling around of our generators, and I'm proud to say we didn't lose a single cell or a single animal, but it was a tough situation to make sure everyone's needs were met.


I also communicated with my colleagues at the County and the various city agencies. If you don't know who your associates are before a disaster, you are not on the winning end during an emergency. I had personal cell numbers and an inside number into the County's EOC. I made frequent communications through the night and that helped with the decision-making process to not resume normal business operations the day after the power outage. When we ran low on fuel and diesel, we let the County know our situation. They were prepared to deliver what we needed but, in the end, we were able to get our supplies through our normal channels. But it was nice to know that those communication lines and resources were there. You can't let those relationships go dormant during the long period of non-emergency responses. I regularly stay in touch with my external colleagues.

During the power outage, what were the campus' strengths and what were our challenges?


Mac Pherson: Without question, the strengths were the people who responded during the outage. I saw a team of committed and knowledgeable faculty and staff come together to resolve difficult scenarios, such as providing emergency power for research that, in some cases, represented dozens of years of research, or very expensive specimens that would take years to replace. Our personnel established and achieved goals, all for the common good of our students, faculty and staff.


We also had situational awareness on and off campus because last summer we acquired an upgraded, integrated radio communication system that allowed us to monitor emergency channels throughout San Diego and communicate with our own staff who were assigned to find out what the impacts were to the various parts of campus. It was great because general cell phone coverage was spotty and iffy.

The power outage led us to re-evaluate our inventory of emergency generators, to make sure we have enough in the event of another regional blackout, and also to make sure we have the capability to transport them to various locations, if necessary. From a more global view, I think we can continue to develop our operating capabilities in our Emergency Operations Center to ensure we are integrated into a larger regional response.

How can we all take an active role in protecting our health and campus environment?


Mac Pherson: We can provide multiple layers of safety and create a "culture" of safety by each of us accepting that we are responsible for ensuring our own health and safety, followed by the health and safety of our fellow students, faculty and staff. During the next fiscal year, EH&S will extend a helping hand to laboratory areas to help promote this culture. The initiative will distribute personal protective equipment (PPE), such as eye protection, lab coats and gloves, intended to reduce injuries and exposure to chemicals that might occur during the normal course of lab activities.


How does EH&S contribute to the campus' sustainability initiatives?


Mac Pherson: Like most departments on campus, sustainability is at the forefront of our minds while we're conducting our work. We've made it a priority. You can walk into any EH&S facility on campus and see obvious examples where conservation of energy is front and center. We've saved hundreds of thousands of dollars and reduced our carbon footprint by consolidating our hazardous waste pick-ups and reducing our shipping costs. We've also made great efforts to move to a paperless office.


More exciting are the opportunities that we have to participate in larger initiatives, such as our award-winning effort that we just completed along the shore areas of Scripps Institution of Oceanography. In collaboration with several of our environmental partners, including the City of San Diego and San Diego Coast Keepers, our Environmental Affairs Division constructed an innovative storm water treatment project that significantly improves the quality of storm water runoff flowing into an ecologically important area of the Pacific Ocean, adjacent to Scripps.

What do you want our campus community to know about EH&S?


Mac Pherson: We are a resource that people can access. We are multi-dimensional. Safety is a priority in everything we do. We are committed to it, and we want everyone to be committed to that mission.



Fun Faves


Favorite place on campus:
The shore area adjacent to the Scripps Institution of Oceanography

Favorite place on Earth:
Anywhere there are mountains and/or oceans

Favorite part of your job:
The diversity of issues I get to address

Favorite way to be sustainable:
Recycling and making conscious choices to reduce my environmental impact

Favorite technology/gadget:
Digital technology, especially photography

Favorite way to spend $10:
Purchasing a few ice cream cones and sitting down with my daughters to catch up with what is happening in their lives

Favorite hobby:
Anything outdoors — hiking, climbing, skiing, scuba diving— and preferably in an exotic place

Favorite food:
I am a serious "foodie." If I had to pick just one, it would be Italian.

Favorite words to live by:
"We create our own future."

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