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Fires, Floods and Trebuchets: EIU A Safer Place, Thanks to Gary Hanebrink

Mar-28-2014

On the day Gary and Karen Hanebrink dropped off their daughter at summer camp, she called home at 10 p.m.

"She told us that the fire extinguisher near her room had been ripped from the wall and that the fire alarm didn't work," Gary Hanebrink recalled. "Then she asked, 'What do I do?'

"I knew then that I had created a monster," he said, grinning.

For the past 20 years, Hanebrink has been the face of safety at Eastern Illinois University. Whether it be preparing the campus for a large event (e.g., a concert, Homecoming activities or Commencement) or making sure passageways have the proper clearance space, the Charleston resident has done his utmost to keep students, faculty/staff and visitors protected.

That hasn't always been an easy task.

"I've dealt with a lot of safety issues over the years," he said, noting that his is not always a welcomed presence, especially when he feels it necessary to nix or alter a planned activity because of potential safety issues.

"I think people sometime wonder if it's better to tell me about a problem or ask for forgiveness later, after the fact," Hanebrink said. "Which is worse?

"I've discovered that you can make most things safe with cooperation," he added.

As he prepares for retirement -- his final day on the job will be Monday, March 31 -- Hanebrink can't help but recall some of the more unique challenges of his job as EIU's safety officer. Specifically, he remembers the trebuchets, fashioned after a medieval catapult-like weapon, built by the School of Technology. Hanebrink admits his heart pounded a little faster than usual as he waited, then watched, as classes launched 10-pound bowling balls 300 feet through the air.

Hanebrink came to EIU in January 1990 as superintendent of maintenance in Facilities Planning and Maintenance. Previously, he worked for Ameren CIPS and other industries in Danville, Peoria and Meredosia/Jacksonville.

During his first year on campus, he introduced a recycling program that involved the collection of recyclable office paper at 11 campus sites. Within months, the pilot program had expanded to include cardboard collection. The program continues to grow, more than two decades later.

For the past 20 of his 24 years of service, Hanebrink has devoted the vast majority of his attention to campus safety issues, including occupational health and safety concerns, injuries and emergency planning. He's noticed trends as the years have gone by.

"In the mid-'90s, the focus was on protection of life and property in the classroom and throughout campus," he said. "This included managing and collecting any hazardous materials one might find. Worker safety was a prime concern, and we worried about AIDS and bloodborne diseases."

However, after New York's Twin Tower attack on Sept. 11, 2001, the focus seemed to shift.

"Our attention turned toward the formation of a Haz-Mat (hazardous material) Response Team after Sept. 11," Hanebrink said.

"Eastern, the city and the Charleston Fire Department were charter members of our local team. I feel pretty good about that."

So does Pat Goodwin, chief of the Charleston Fire Department.

"I have spent a lot of time with Gary Hanebrink over the years," Goodwin said. "Deployments with the Incident Management Team, fires, Haz-Mat incidents, to other special call-outs.

"We spent a year together planning a state exercise at EIU back in 2011. I look back at incidents and pre-plannings over the years, and Gary and I were always side by side. It was a team approach and we worked well together.

“Gary worked to manage an incident, but worked harder to pre-plan and prevent an incident," Goodwin continued. "This attitude always had the best outcome, and Gary had a keen eye for the planning and prevention aspect. He has been a leader, mentor, friend and best buddy to me, and I will always cherish the time we had together."

While looking out for the welfare of the EIU community, Hanebrink applied for, and was accepted into, membership on both the Illinois Incident Management and National Incident Management teams. (Incident Management Team is a term used to refer to an emergency response group. Team members -- whether they're a local, statewide or national group -- respond to a wide range of emergencies, including fires, floods, earthquakes, hurricanes, tornadoes, riots, the spilling of hazardous materials, and other natural or human-caused incidents.)

"After the tornadoes in November (2013), I spent 24 hours in Gifford and five days in Washington," Hanebrink recalled. "I spent two weeks in Louisiana after Hurricane Gustav (2008) and spent some time in both Texas during the Fort Davis wildfires (2011) and in Grant Pass, Oregon, during the wildfires there (2013)."

"The duration of each call varies, depending on the complexity of the incident," he added.

It should be noted that, unless Hanebrink is representing the university, he uses vacation time when he leaves to work an emergency. And, of course, due to the nature of the work, he doesn't have the luxury of advanced notice.

"The university has been fantastic, very supportive of my efforts," he said. "And I'd like to think that those efforts have benefited Eastern in turn, as I can come back and share with the knowledge I've gained with my fellow employees and other emergency responders within the community."