At the 2002 Lab Animal Management Association (LAMA) conference in Jackson Hole, WY, we heard about a number of natural disasters and the impact on research, employees, and animals. We heard of floods in Texas and North Dakota, earthquakes in California, hurricanes in Florida, and fires in Maine. In every case, animals and research were lost at a cost that is hard to put a price on. You can add up the cost to replace the buildings and start over, but it is harder to place a value on the trauma and hardship these events created.

One of the recurring themes of the conference was how to prepare for a disaster. People talked about developing plans, creating response teams, practicing with mock drills and refining their plans on an annual basis. Representatives from the Association for Assessment and Accreditation of Laboratory Animal Care (AAALAC) went so far as to warn attendees they would be paying closer attention to a facility’s disaster plan when conducting inspections. All are very sound recommendations. But what about the facility itself? Are there ways we could change how we design an animal facility so that disasters could be averted or minimized? What about other types of disasters? On many occasions I have seen the impact a cage washer or autoclave going down can have on a vivarium; and those of you who have experienced this know it can cause your facility to look as if a tornado had gone through it!

This article provides an overview of how sound vivarium planning can address not only natural disasters, but also other types of disasters that you may encounter in a vivarium. The concepts presented range from broad ideas to more detailed suggestions and, as with any planning effort, the reader should evaluate these ideas within a proper risk assessment framework in order to ensure overall balance of a project.

Building Codes, Design, and Animal Welfare

When designing any new building, there are codes and guidelines that architects and engineers must follow. The main purpose of these documents is to ensure the building is safe for the occupants not only during normal usage but also in the event of a disaster. In fact, code is often being edited and re-written to reflect current events. There is nothing like disasters to change the way buildings are designed.

But code is written for people, not animals. The design of a building may allow for the employees occupying the space to get out safely, but what does that do for the animals housed in the facility? Any time a disaster occurs in a research building, there is the potential for loss of data and years of research, but in a vivarium, there is also an ethical question- should the animals be left to perish in the disaster or are we responsible for their safety as well?

This is not to say that building codes should be changed to allow for protection of animal occupants, although it is an interesting concept, but there are some things we could think about that might allow some consideration for them. When you think about it, a vivarium could be thought of as a hospital where the animals are the patients. When a disaster occurs in a human hospital, there are often patients that can’t be moved right away due to their condition. In these cases, they are either moved to secure areas within the building or out of the building via egress routes that are designed to protect the patients and staff during the evacuation.

There are other types of code, like institutional code, that address some of these issues. Institutional code is used not only for hospitals but also for prisons and, if it were used in its entirety, would not be practical for vivariums. However, there are some things we can draw from it that would complement and add to the code normally used for vivariums. For example, institutional code may require a building in an earthquake zone to have an area in the building that is designed with additional structure as a place of refuge where patients can be placed during an earthquake until they can be moved later. It also calls for the wiring used in enunciators, emergency lighting, and other fire protection systems to have a longer fire rating so that the system remains active during the time it takes to move patients out of the building. These are just some measures that could be used in a vivarium to create safe zones and to allow staff the time to relocate animals to a secure area or out of the building.

Even if you set aside the animal welfare issue, there are other reasons for augmenting the code used in vivarium design. Many institutions have transgenic animals that are unique and irreplaceable while others have animal models whose characteristics have been well studied and defined for testing purposes. Of course, this only works if it is part of an overall, well thought out disaster plan. No sense designing a corridor with higher fire ratings if there is no a secure area outside the building to locate the animals.

This type of thinking has not often been used in vivarium design, though that may have more to do with people not being aware of its existence or placing value on its importance. Unfortunately, in the end, the level of protection provided to the animals in the building will be a balancing of their needs and the potential risks with the overall building cost. Many will choose not to implement such measures. One of the other themes from the LAMA meeting was the issue of staff struggling with questions about why these things happen and how could they have been prevented. A facility that incorporates discussions about disaster planning in their design can help staff deal with the emotional questions of why and how, by informing them of what precautions were taken and maybe why other steps were not taken.

The Best Location For The Vivarium In A Building

After days of, at times, emotionally charged testimony of flooding basements and other disasters one LAMA conference attendee cried out “When will these architects clue in and stop placing animal facilities in basements?”

Well, the answer is that sometimes, the best place for a vivarium is in the basement. Other times, it is on the ground floor and still others it is on an upper floor. There are many factors that influence the decision on where to locate the vivarium in a building. Security, materials handling, adjacency to other research components, location of utilities, and code implications are just some of the many factors influencing the location of a vivarium within a building.

Sometimes it is not possible to fit the entire footprint required for a vivarium on one floor and so some of it needs to be on upper floors or in the basement. Basements tend to be secure, close to utilities and loading docks, on grade for heavy equipment, and out of sight. However by doing so, we tend to also create an environment that is difficult to exit from or get to during an emergency. The bottom line is there is no one best location for a vivarium and it needs to be decided on a case-by-case basis through proper risk assessment. By the same token, it means taking the time to explore all the possibilities and not just assuming it should be located in the basement.


I Didn’t Think That Could Happen!!

Have you ever experienced the temperature in a holding room suddenly rise? What about pressure differentials changing? How about leaks above your holding room ceilings? All of these things could have potentially disastrous effects. Taking the time to plan your buildings mechanical systems can greatly reduce the risk of these types of disasters.

Conducting a system failure analysis as part of your design and commissioning process can be an important step in disaster preparedness. Take, for example, the overheating rooms. Analyzing the failure positions of valves in the HVAC system can ensure that re-heat coils fail in the closed position instead of open. A system failure analysis can incorporate identifying critical pressure relationships in the vivarium ensuring that, during the start-up or shutdown of the HVAC system, pressure relationships are maintained.

The location of the mechanical space can also have an impact in reducing disasters. Placing re-heat coils and airflow devices in a separate mechanical space can eliminate not only the incidence of leaks above ceilings but also the need for maintenance within the facility, reducing disruption. The mechanical systems can be located above the vivarium in an interstice or adjacent to the vivarium on the same floor.

Ensuring your mechanical systems have adequate redundancy is an important step in being able to divert a disaster. Having back-up air handling units and emergency generators are just examples. Others include diverter valves that allow the water to be diverted to the animal watering system while shutting it off in the rest of the building.

Having a good understanding of your building’s mechanical systems and their back-ups is an important part of any good disaster plan. It is surprising how much a vivarium depends on its mechanical systems yet how little some people know about their systems and how they will function in the event of a failure. A system failure analysis could be conducted not only on new buildings but also on existing systems and may be a good place to start when evaluating existing facilities.

Remember, having a back up system is not enough. It should be tested on a regular basis to ensure it is functioning properly.


Staging Areas & Materials Flow

At the core of a well-designed vivarium is its ability to minimize cross-traffic and cross-contamination. More than ever before, being able to keep animals free of contamination and disease is an important part of vivarium management. Any time there is a disease outbreak in a facility it can lead not only to lost research data, but lost animal lives.

At the heart of your facility’s program is the cage wash facility. It has the potential to be the source of a multitude of contamination issues. When your washing and sterilizing equipment is not working, the dirty cages can start to pile up. Often time, this leads to cages backing up into hallways, creating zones for potential cross-contamination. Equipment downtime can be minimized, but eventually, it will happen. However, even here, there is something you can do to minimize its effect.

A comprehensive throughput analysis of your processing capability can help you not only ensure there is adequate capacity in your equipment, but you can expand the study to include the space required to stage soiled cages and storage for clean cages. If you know how much space you need to operate on a daily basis, then you could also determine how much space you would need if you wanted to be able to manage a pre-determined amount of equipment downtime. Staging areas could be enlarged to accommodate storage of dirty caging and clean caging storage could be sized to ensure an adequate supply.

If you operate an existing facility and have had the pleasure of not having your equipment break down, this process will assist you in preparing for the eventuality of a failure.


Hope For The Best, Plan For The Worst

It is important to take the time to plan not only for natural disasters, but all types of potential problems that might arise within a vivarium. Many of these exercises can apply not only to new facilities but also to existing ones. Emergency plans, system failure analysis and other studies, such as a throughput analysis, can be included not only in your disaster plan but can be part of the Basis of Design for any new building.

Some of the concepts put forth here can have a significant impact on the overall cost of a facility and as such, they should be reviewed in the context of balancing their benefit versus the risk and cost of implementing them. Just remember, it is difficult to place a cost on lost research and more importantly, lost animal lives.

We can never be prepared for or prevent all potential disasters, but if you don’t know where you are going, you most surely will end up somewhere else and it may not be where you, or your animals, want to be.