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Vechil Helped to Make Dryden Safer
February 6, 2012

Jack Vechil and Leah Carreno were preparing for the center's involvement in a Southern California disaster preparedness exercise at the Dryden Emergency Operations Center in 2008.Jack Vechil and Leah Carreno were preparing for the center's involvement in a Southern California disaster preparedness exercise at the Dryden Emergency Operations Center in 2008. (NASA Photo / Tom Tschida)

How to be safe and secure and what it takes to be so are always changing and it takes vigilance to stay focused on maintaining high standards.

Emergency manager Jack Vechil retired Feb. 1 after more than 15 years in safety and security positions at Dryden. Vechil knows more than a thing or two about safety, as prior to coming to Dryden he served in the U.S. Navy on vessels that may have carried a major safety concern - nuclear weapons.

While most of the safety and security threats here are not as intense as his previous work place, one value that he brought with him from his Navy career is that people can be enabled to be a vital part of their own safety.

For example, on the ships where Vechil served, everyone was responsible for safety. Considering some of the ship's cargo, it was a topic that had crewmembers attention, he added. He served 12 years active duty and 19 years in the reserves. He retired as a master chief petty officer, an E-9 Navy designation that signifies his management, leadership and team building skills.

Those skills were on display immediately when Vechil came to work here. His contributions to Dryden have included placement of the emergency white Conex boxes with a blue stripe around the center, the establishment of an Emergency Operations Center and improving the center's emergency communications by moving from satellite radios to satellite phones.

"It was a challenging job and lots of fun," he said.

Shortly after Vechil came to Dryden in 1996 he saw a problem with distribution of supplies if there was a disaster on base and people at Dryden needed them.

"Supplies need to be where people need them," Vechil said.

Then safety chief Tom Ambrose agreed to purchase the Conex boxes, which essentially are locker boxes that contain disaster preparedness equipment and supplies. The Conex boxes are spread over the center to provide immediate supplies of water and medical essentials in the event of an emergency.

Some examples of the kinds of events that change safety and security include when emergency management moved from the center's safety organization to Protective Services after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, he said. Another example is new construction methods and materials that might change safety procedures and requirements. People's thinking has to change with the new methods to avoid complacency and avoid accidents, he said.

Human nature is to become comfortable and complacent, even when it comes to safety and security. An example of that is how the East Coast NASA centers annually practice in case a hurricane, tornado or other natural disaster strikes. On the West Coast, however, NASA conducts annual disaster drills, but they are not as intense as they should be, Vechil said. Why? There are fewer major earthquakes, building codes in the U.S. are more stringent that other countries and there is no designated earthquake season, he said. For those reasons, disasters are not on the top of people's minds on the West Coast until they are in one.

That thinking extends to Dryden employees, he said. Although Dryden is well prepared for an emergency, Vechil said he is concerned that people are not as prepared at home if an earthquake hits. Even during the Great Shakeout exercise in 2008 the emergency was understated in terms of how bad it could be.

Vechil recommends for people in the more remote desert areas of Los Angeles and Kern counties to be prepared with enough food and water for seven days, as immediate help and supplies will be sent to more populous areas.

People need to be prepared to be safe at home, but also to think about security issues, such as not allowing bushes to give potential burglars cover to get in the house, make sure the lighting is good and the doors are locked, he said.

In that way, Vechil said Dryden's Safety Days could be used to educate employees on issues close to home like the establishment and upkeep of a family emergency plan.

Another change in safety and security during Vechil's career here is the establishment of an Emergency Operations Center, a place where disaster planning and recovery could begin in the case of a major event.

At a management meeting at Stennis Space Center, Vechil first received stacks of documents about the requirements for NASA centers in an emergency. Vechil requested a meeting with Dryden senior management to discuss the implications of the requirements. An oversight committee was created and the Emergency Operations Center was prepared in Building 4850.

The new challenge, especially with Vechil's departure, is to simplify the Emergency Operations Center and streamline training needed to run it in an emergency, he added.

Vechil's thoughts are now turning to the clear, blue waters of Lake Havasu. Born and raised in Bakersfield, Vechil and his wife, Cindy, plan to raise their daughter Caitlyn with a view of the lake from the family's new home in Lake Havasu City, Ariz.

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