Disaster Planning and Preparedness

Geographically speaking, central Canada provides for a safe place to live, with little to no natural disasters, thankfully. However, there are some disasters that can happen regardless of where we live, including floods, fires, power outages, disease outbreak, and as we’ve recently experienced, global pandemics. 2020 has been quite the turbulent year thus far for the world, but more specifically for the vivarium. Due to COVID-19, we were forced to act swiftly and make quick, but informed, and most definitely difficult, decisions. Most colonies had to be euthanized due to the shutdown of academic research as a result of the pandemic. Researchers lost entire colony lines, and in some cases, years of important research. To begin to comprehend the recovery process and the amount of time, an immeasurable cost, that it will take to restore the colonies to their original sizes and begin collecting data again, is simply unfathomable.  It goes without saying that 2020 has been a devastating and emotional time for everyone. Our generation has never lived through such a pandemic and it’s safe to say we were ill prepared.  Looking forward, health professionals predict several more waves of COVID-19 before we are in the clear, and fires and floods can happen at any time, so regardless of the probability of disaster striking, it’s important to have an articulate plan in place, to know the plan well, and to practice regularly. This article provides some insight on how the BSF dealt with the COVID-19 pandemic and some useful tools to create your own disaster plan for your lab. 

Useful Tips 

The cost of developing a single mouse strain can cost upwards of $100,000, not to mention the roughly 18 months it can take to develop the colony, and nearly $6000 a year to maintain it (JAX). The following disaster planning guide outlines the phases of disaster, communications requirements, essential backup supplies, and practicing the plan, in an attempt to help better prepare you and your lab/research for any disaster that may arise.    

Phases of Disaster 

Disaster planning is an ongoing effort; a cyclical plan that must be revisited and practiced often to ensure that protocols are up-to-date and members of the facility, including researchers, are aware of procedures and confident in the steps to follow in the event of a disaster. There are four major phases of disaster: preparation, mitigation, response and recovery (JAX). In the following section, we will outline each step in detail and provide solutions for each phase.  

What can we add to these phases, based on our own recent experience? Not just COVID-19, but disease outbreak, the flood we experienced, etc.  

Preparation. In the preparation phase, all scenarios are on the table. Compiling a team of people at various levels, including supervisors, vivarium staff, admin staff, veterinary staff, and lab members or facility users, is a good start. This team should work together to develop the plan and establish protocol in the event of a disaster.  

Do we want to say this? 

First, a central “command centre” should be established. The Command Centre will be the designated area in which everyone meet and report back to during a disaster.  

Time needs to be taken to prioritize the colonies to determine which are most important, and which, if any, should be cryopreserved. Strains that have been developed and perfected over a long period of time should be cryopreserved, and strain information should be backed up someplace off site in case of an in-house disaster (e.g. a flood or fire).  

Depending on the disaster, we may or may not be able to continue breeding while the facility is being restored to its original state. Consider the implications if breeding is halted and plan for alternative solutions. 

Mitigation. Cryopreserve your strains where possible, particularly in lines that are vital to your research and difficult or impossible to reinstate, to avoid complete loss of colony lines. Prioritize animals and lines to protect. Consider species, uniqueness, recovery/reproduction time, value, vulnerability, manageability, and hazard when determining which animals take precedent.  

Is there anything else that comes in this phase? Do we need to promote cryopreservation for all lines? 

Response. The response phase is one that should occur swiftly, that is, as fast and as seamlessly as possible. We need to consider the possibility of moving colonies to another facility that can maintain them temporarily, or cryopreserve them if necessary.  

Recovery. Ensuring that strain samples/information is stored off site, in a safe location, guarantees that the colonies can be recovered quickly and with ease.  


First and foremost, the team should determine important contacts in the event of a disaster, and should prepare an emergency contact list to be distributed and studied by anyone who may be affected by a disaster. This includes students, faculty, postdoctoral fellows, research associates, volunteers, administrative staff, animal care staff, building or facilities staff, and anyone else who works with, either directly or indirectly, the vivarium.   

Second, communication is key in the event of a disaster. Keeping everyone informed in real time will help ensure that everyone remain calm and confident all will be okay. Consider how communication will take place (e.g. by phone, internet, central command centre, etc.) as some forms of communication may not be available in some situations (e.g. power outage). In the event of loss of power, the team can opt for radios (walkie talkies) or runners who check in with everyone every 30 minutes, for example.  

Practice Makes Perfect 

Practicing the disaster plan will help staff, researchers and other facility users prepare for how to mobilize and act quickly in an efficient manner. Practice the plan at least once a year if not more. Consider, for example, a fire drill. Fire drills run several times a year to prepare building occupants for the real thing. In the same way, running a disaster drill will help you and your team be prepared for when disaster strikes. Some suggestions to implement in a disaster drill include: “fan out calling, simulate emergency response, make sure contacts are up-to-date, find flaws”. 


Be prepared with backup supplies. Depending on your role within the vivarium, you may want to prepare one or more of the following:  

Emergency response personnel supplies. These are supplies meant of the emergency response team who will be in the area. Consider storing these items in a central location (e.g. the command centre) so easy access. Examples of these supplies include: flashlights, food, PPE,  

Emergency animal supplies. Consider what will happen if there is a power outage and the automatic water supply is compromised. Prepare an extra tank of water (gel packs can be supplied for rodents). Extra food, bedding, clean cages, and any other necessities for your animals should all be stored aside. Consider also storing some portable air conditions, humidifiers/dehumidifiers and heaters in the event of a power outage or ventilated air malfunction.  

We hope that these tips and help you and your lab be better prepared in the event of a disaster.