Animal Welfare Information Center Bulletin, Summer 2000, Vol. 11 No. 1-2

Disaster Planning for Research and Laboratory Animal Facilities

Sebastian E. Heath, VetMB, Ph.D., DACVIM, DACVPM


Since 1996, the Institute of Laboratory Animal Resources (ILAR) Guide for Care and Use of Laboratory Animals recommends that research and laboratory animal facilities have a disaster preparedness plan. This is a prudent recommendation, because over US$10 billion a year are spent at nearly 2,000 facilities on biological research involving animals in the United States. Protecting this huge investment in biological research is vital if the United States is to remain at the forefront of biological research in the world.

The value of disaster preparedness to laboratory animal facilities has been highlighted in recent years, because of several large scale disasters that have impacted the U.S. research investment. Examples of recent large scale disasters that have impacted research facilities include the Northridge, California, earthquake (1994), Hurricane Opal (1995) (1), Red River, Minnesota, floods (1996)(2), New York heat wave (1997)(3), Bowling Green, Kentucky, tornadoes (1998)(4), west central Indiana blizzards (1999), and a break-in by animal rights activists in Puyallup, Washington (1999)(5). In addition to these incidents, several forums at national meetings (6) and publications (7) have raised awareness of the need for disaster preparedness in research animal facilities.

Since 1998 the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has supported the Disaster Resistant Universities initiatives (8). FEMA has made this commitment also in an attempt to protect Federal investment in U.S. research. The Disaster Resistant Universities initiative is currently in its second year of funding. To date the focus of this program has been on protecting human safety; providing continuity of research, teaching, and service activities; and sustaining community economies

Clearly, ILAR and FEMA have similar interests in protecting research; however, they have different priorities. The emphasis of the Disaster Resistant Universities initiative has been on strengthening critical infrastructure, the benefits of which are distributed over long periods of time. By contrast, the emphasis for the care of research animals in disasters is to save animal lives and ongoing research, which may only be possible within a short (12-48 hour) window of time. There are also differences in expertise in disaster preparedness. Since the late 1970's emergency management has emerged as a profession with a mission and track record of systematically increasing the level of disaster resistance of communities and businesses. By comparison, there is still a critical need in the (biological) research community for guidelines on how to develop and implement effective Emergency Operations Plans (EOPs)

The purpose of this article is to exemplify how the principles of emergency management apply to emergency operations planning at research animal facilities. This summary is also intended to provide a pragmatic basis for EOP development by persons responsible for developing disaster preparedness plans at laboratory and research animal facilities.

The Application of Emergency Management Concepts to Laboratory and Research Facilities

Legal Concepts

Emergency Operations Plans are mandated

Most EOPs have a legal basis. In a formal EOP, the legal basis for the plan is stated in references to documents that contain the mandate for having a plan and identify any parties that play a role in the disaster response and preparedness. Legal references relevant to research animal facilities include obligations to comply with the Animal Welfare Act, ILAR guidelines to have a disaster preparedness plan, Association for the Accreditation and Assessment of Laboratory Animal Care International (AAALAC) certification standards, institutional environmental health and safety or Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) standards, and other institutional documents, such as mission statements to perform research, teaching and service activities, and empowerment of institutional security and fire departments.

The importance of legal statements goes beyond establishing the authority under which an EOP exists. By having a formal (signed) representation in a plan, multiple stakeholders are given the opportunity to contribute to planning for and responding to disasters. This buy-in increases the practicality of a plan and reduces grounds for liability litigation in the event of a disaster.

Concepts of Disaster Preparedness

Regardless of the cause of most disasters the impacts are similar

Although large-scale incidents attract widespread attention, emergency management agencies have long recognized that regardless of the cause (and scale) of most disasters their impacts are often similar. For example, many different causes of natural and technological disasters can lead to common impacts, such as power failures, failure of heating and cooling systems, chemical spills, insufficient staff, security breaches, and animal escapes.

Because the impacts of many disasters are similar, emergency managers have adopted an "all-hazards" approach to disaster preparedness and response. All-hazards preparedness focuses on preventing likely and common effects from any type of disaster, and on reducing the likely consequences resulting from these effects.

Disasters invariably lead to functional (operational) disruptions

The impacts of disasters in turn lead to predictable disruptions (consequences) in functions that are necessary to maintain an appropriate standard of animal care and research continuity. Examples of disruptions in research animal facilities include injury and death of animals, contamination of tissue cultures, temperature fluctuations in incubators, inadvertent thawing of specimens stored in freezers and refrigerators, deviations from research protocols, and loss and corruption of data.

Effective EOPs, therefore, aim to minimize the risk of disruptions due to any cause. This approach is called function-based planning. Function-based planning is different and more effective than incident-based planning. Incident-based plans are frequently developed in response to a disaster or prepared for a limited number of scenarios--for example, hurricanes and floods, but not fires-- and, therefore, increase vulnerability to unexpected disasters.

Everyday preparedness is the best protection against extraordinary events

Understanding that disasters manifest themselves principally as functional disruptions, it is not hard to imagine that disasters affect the weakest function first. Examples of the weakest functions are minor inconveniences and disruptions that are often tolerated, such as unexpected staff absenteeism; short term failure of power, heating, or cooling; and security breaches. However, when disaster strikes, these minor inconveniences frequently preoccupy response and recovery efforts.

Therefore, a useful initial step in disaster preparedness planning is to identify and correct common causes of disruption first. The elimination of existing and common causes of everyday disruptions is an effective way to increase the threshold at which disasters lead to major disruptions. Once common causes of disruptions have been addressed, further attention can be given to identifying and preventing cataclysmic (and often hypothetical) events.

Effective preparedness is hierarchical

Effective preparedness starts with personal preparedness (personal safety, preparedness at home, ability to come to work), followed by worksite preparedness (continuity of animal care and research, meeting environmental and health safety and OSHA standards), and culminates in community preparedness.

Personal preparedness is the first step in creating a culture of disaster preparedness in the workplace. Materials that promote personal disaster preparedness are published by the American Red Cross and FEMA (9). These publications can be distributed to employees and researchers. The relevance of these materials is to convey an understanding that personal disaster preparedness is the basis for providing animal care in a disaster as well as sustaining research activities.

Disaster preparedness in the workplace seeks to reduce direct and indirect losses resulting from disasters. Direct losses include injury and death of humans and animals, damage to buildings and equipment, loss of research data, and delays in the publication of scientific data. Indirect losses from disasters include a loss of competitive edge in research, loss of institutional reputation, and decreased local economy as trade with local vendors is reduced. Reducing direct and indirect losses should be the overall goal of an EOP. Losses are smallest when the disruptions to animal care and research are minimized.

When disasters shut down research facilities, the disaster also indirectly affects the institution as a whole and the community that provides services and supplies to the institution. Therefore, the community in which a research facility is located is the ultimate beneficiary of better disaster preparedness. Community preparedness involves an integrated approach to planning involving personal preparedness among staff and researchers, workplace and institutional preparedness, and contingency plans to sustain community economies involved in providing services and supplies. FEMA initiatives, such as "Disaster Resistant Universities" and "Project Impact" (10), have greatly enhanced community disaster resistance and serve as models for community preparedness.

Training consists of sequential exercises that build on one another

Similar to the hierarchical basis for effective preparedness, effective disaster preparedness training is progressive. The simplest and first level of exercise is an orientation, followed by table top exercises and drills, then functional and full-scale exercises. FEMA recommends a Comprehensive Exercise Program with a progressive sequence of exercises of increasing complexity, which is repeated every 2 to 4 years (11).

A common mistake in designing exercises is to let enthusiasm take over and to plan for a full-scale exercise early in the planning process. Overzealous full-scale exercises often accomplish little, because they lack specific objectives and goals. The goal of all exercises is to improve on weak areas that have been identified in previous exercises and incidents.

Identifying specific objectives for training and exercises is part of exercise design and planning. Objectives can be as simple as a review of procedures or more complex, such as testing specific functions (drills) such as establishing communications or evacuating animals in cages along fire escape routes. Courses on how to prepare exercises are available through most states' public safety training institutes or emergency management agencies. It is highly recommended that training in exercise design be sought before planning more than an orientation.

It is not a matter of if disasters will occur, but of when they will occur

This assumption (and years of experiences) has led emergency managers to the understanding that disasters are cyclical events (12) (fig. 1). The importance of this cyclical concept is that facilities are always in at least one of the four phases of a disaster: mitigation, preparedness, response, or recovery. The cyclical nature of disasters implies that planning does not end with the publication of a document (plan). Disaster preparedness is a continual effort in which the phases of the cycle of emergency management are constantly being anticipated, reviewed, and improved.

Figure 1. The cycle of emergency management.

This graphic lists the four phases of disaster (mitigation, preparedness, response, and recovery).  The words, placed in a circle,  are each connected by a curved arrow to illustrate the cyclical c

 ncept of disasters.

Mitigation: Measures that prevent or reduce the impact of disasters.

Preparedness: Planning, training, and educational activities for things that cannot be mitigated.

Response: The immediate aftermath of a disaster, when business is not as usual.

Recovery: The long-term aftermath of a disaster, when restoration efforts are in addition to regular services.

Concepts of Disaster Response

Disaster-related responsibilities should be assigned to positions not persons

Function-based planning includes assigning planning and response responsibilities to positions rather than individual persons. People go on vacation, leave, or can be otherwise unavailable, whereas their position and their responsibilities generally do not.

To ensure that planning and response responsibilities are met by positions rather than persons, these responsibilities have to be defined in employees' job descriptions. Job descriptions should also include methods to transfer responsibilities when people go on leave. When positions fulfill critical functions, such as feeding and watering research animals, these jobs should be defined as "essential" within the institution. By making these positions essential, in the event of a large-scale disaster, qualified persons will be allowed access to the facilities and be able to complete their duties.

The best responders perform similar duties in disasters as they do every day

The most effective persons to respond to disrupted operations at an animal care or research facility are the same persons who regularly perform these duties. By contrast, the least effective persons to respond to disasters are those who get called only in a disaster. Personnel who regularly work in a particular area are also usually the most experienced at effective problem solving in that area.

The reliance on experienced persons to respond to disasters also reduces the need for developing extensive Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) for special use in disasters, because these SOPs have usually already been established for other circumstances. For example, there is little need for specific guidelines for feeding and maintaining laboratory animals in disasters, if these tasks can be completed by already competent staff. However, to ensure that qualified persons can complete these tasks, an EOP would specify that regular care providers are the designated care providers for animals in disasters, and they perform these duties by being given access to the facilities and by relying on existing SOPs. Much time in writing a plan can be saved by incorporating existing SOPs as appendixes to the EOP.

During the response (immediate aftermath) phase of a disaster not all issues can receive equal attention

In most cases, the losses associated with disasters are caused by: loss of data (for example, animals, records), lack of access (for example, to facilities, animals, and data), and shortage of personnel (for example, staff cannot come to work or are overwhelmed by the number of tasks placed on them). Because of predictable multiple causes of losses, planning should address each potential cause and establish criteria to prioritize areas in which greatest losses should be minimized first.

The decision on where to focus efforts in an attempt to selectively reduce losses is not easy. In animal research facilities, disasters may necessitate making decisions that balance animal welfare with scientific progress. For example, the appropriateness of saving a few unique transgenic animals or animals in the end phase of a long-term study may need to be weighed against saving a large number of standardized animals not currently in a trial. Criteria used to decide priorities for response are best identified in collaboration with appropriate stake holders, including health and safety officers, laboratory animal veterinarians, researchers, and representatives of the Animal Care and Use Committee.

The Incident Management (Command) System is the most effective method to coordinate the response to a disaster

During the response phase to a disaster, there will be competition for scarce resources. Decisions on how to prioritize use of resources may seem overwhelming. However, the burden of choices is greatly reduced through prior planning and by using a centralized structure for communications, chain of authority, and decision making during the response.

Emergency managers make effective decisions by using the Incident Management System. The Incident Management System consists of an Incident Manager (Commander), who has on-site decision making power over the use of resources. Answerable to the Incident Manager are Chiefs of Operations, Planning, Logistics, and Finance. These sections are responsible for executing orders, gathering intelligence, supporting responders, and procuring resources, respectively. In addition, a Safety Officer oversees human safety and can intervene whenever human safety is at risk. A Public Information Officer handles all communications between the Incident Manager and the public and the media.

Some hospitals have adapted the ICS, the Hospital Incident Command System (HICS), to meet specific issues arising in medical facilities during disasters. In these institutions, emergency programs for laboratory animals should be integrated into the HICS already in use.

Training in incident management is available from State and local emergency management agencies, as well as many institutional fire and law enforcement (security) departments.

A manageable span of control prevents over-extension of responsibilities in a disaster

Demands on personnel at all levels can be overwhelming in a disaster, even when planning has occurred. A common shortcoming in response to disasters is that responders take on more responsibilities than they can manage. This is particularly true for animal care providers, many of whom will risk personal harm to prevent animal injuries or loss of animal life. As a result of being over-extended, staff may not be able to perform any of their tasks adequately.

Emergency managers prevent over-extension by imposing a manageable span of control.

A manageable span of control dictates that one person does not oversee more than five others. A manageable span of control, therefore, determines the basic structure of the Incident Management System.

During the recovery (long-term aftermath) phase of a disaster, multiple activities need to be accomplished

During the recovery phase of a disaster, staff often take on additional duties and activities in addition to their regular jobs. These extra duties consist of activities needed to return service back to normal and are in addition to the service and research activities provided before the disaster. Because of this extra work load, many employees feel most pressured during the recovery period. Frustrations and complaints escalate, frequently leading to employees leaving their jobs, resulting in costly staff turn-over and retraining of new employees.

Prior planning will alleviate some of the stress of the recovery period. However, in addition to an increased work load, the psychological impact of a disaster associated with loss of animal life, animal suffering, combined with feelings of a limited ability to do anything about it may need to be addressed. Emergency managers use critical incident stress debriefing (13) and Red Cross mental health counseling services to help them deal with these stresses. Stress counseling is most effective when it has been incorporated as part of regular disaster preparedness efforts.

Activities to Initiate Emergency Operations Planning

The goal of emergency operations planning is to increase the level of resistance to disasters. Emergency response is most effective when it has been planned and regularly exercised. By adhering to the principles outlined in this article and by making a diligent effort to constantly improve disaster preparedness plans and response procedures, liability can also be reduced. Following are specific activities that research facility planners can use to start developing an EOP for their institution.

Establish an advisory committee

To ensure that disaster preparedness plans and the response to disasters are compliant with the many policies and regulations that govern animal care in research and laboratory facilities, a planning advisory committee should be established. This committee should consist of representatives of all groups responsible for creating and enforcing these policies and regulations, as well as animal care providers. This committee should meet regularly to review the planning progress and to ensure that disaster preparedness plans comply with the regulations and polices governing the care of animals in research.

The advisory committee should also act as a resource in a disaster to ensure that decisions made to protect animals and research activities comply with existing regulations. To ensure that the members of the committee can be a resource in a disaster, a method for contacting all committee members should be established and tested early in the planning process.

In a large-scale disaster, members of the planning committee may assemble at an emergency operations center (EOC). Representatives of the institution's legal, executive, and administrative branches are located at the EOC. The role of the EOC is to be an informational resource on institutional regulations and policy and resource procurement for the Incident Manager. As part of planning, it should be determined who has access to the EOC in a disaster, because an EOC usually has restricted access.

Alternatively, a virtual EOC can be established, in which the Incident Manager knows where he or she can obtain appropriate information to make decisions in a disaster that comply with regulations. A carefully selected planning committee and reliable methods to contact them may suffice as a virtual EOC.

Conduct a vulnerability assessment

Efficient use of time and resources is as important to emergency operations planning as it is to any other aspect of research and business. Therefore, it is important to systematically prioritize planning efforts. A vulnerability assessment is the process by which to prioritize disaster preparedness efforts.

A vulnerability assessment is a four-step process. The first step is to identify hazards and other causes of disruptions to animal care. The second is to identify resources that minimize disruptions. The third step is to quantify potential losses. The fourth step uses the information gathered in the previous steps to create a risk index.

In many research facilities with a large variety of animals and facilities, it may be necessary to initially consider the vulnerability of each type of animal husbandry system separately.

Identifying hazards and other causes of disruption to animal care and research

This process consists of identifying and preventing potential causes of catastrophic loss, as well as other likely causes of disruption. The goal of this part of the vulnerability assessment is to rank animal care and research units based on the likely frequency and duration of disruptions.

Identifying and preventing catastrophic losses

Identifying and preventing catastrophic losses should be the initial focus of a vulnerability assessment. Areas in which catastrophic losses can occur are best identified by inspecting each facility with emergency response and preparedness personnel, such as fire marshals, safety officers, and architects. During these inspections, the vulnerability to catastrophic losses to humans, animals, and research data can be ascertained by considering worst-case scenarios, such as fires, floods, or prolonged power outages, and trying to recognize threats to human (staff and responders) and animal safety during evacuations.

Typical examples of facilities that are vulnerable to catastrophic loss include buildings that do not meet current standards of construction to withstand likely regional geophysical hazards, such as earthquakes, floods, and hurricanes; rooms without fire suppression systems; and animal care facilities that can only be accessed via an elevator. If these or similar vulnerabilities to catastrophic loss are identified, then appropriate mitigation measures can be taken, for example, to retrofit or rebuild the facilities, or to relocate animals. Preparedness activities that protect against catastrophic loss of data include repeated reminders to researchers to make multiple copies of their records and to store data at multiple sites.

Identifying and prioritizing other causes of disruption

The two most common causes of disruption to animal care and research are a failure of infrastructure (primary and backup utilities, access and egress routes) and a shortage of personnel (flu epidemics, inability to access work). Hazards and other causes of disruptions to animal care can be identified from a number of sources. Data on the frequency and duration of disruptions are available from local emergency management agencies and institutions. These usually have records that summarize major geophysical events that have disrupted the community, such as dates and duration of weather advisories and conditions that led to traffic curfews, or business, school, and university closures. Institutional sources of information include animal care logs and surveys of the animal care staff.

Identifying resources that minimize disruptions

The goal of this part of the vulnerability assessment is to rank animal care and research units according to their dependence on backup utilities. Examples of resources that minimize losses include generators that provide backup power, heating and cooling; alternative housing facilities; feed reserves; and current data backup.

Resources that minimize disruptions to animal care can be identified during inspections of individual husbandry facilities. The effectiveness of backup resources should be viewed in the context of the types of animals and their husbandry needs. For example, species that live in controlled environments depend on a reliable source of heating and cooling. Lack of backup utilities to sustain their environment makes these animals and related research vulnerable to disasters. By comparison, range cattle may not depend on a controlled environment, but in severe weather rely on staff being able to access their paddocks to provide feed and water. In this case the inability to access pastures would put these animals and related research projects at risk.

An estimation of the costs of disasters

An estimation of the costs of disasters involves compiling an inventory of animals, supplies, and research investments. The cost of disruptions and loss of data can be subjective, because it includes losses associated with death and injury of research animals, some of which may be priceless if they promise to lead to patents, progress in research, and future funding and, last but not least, have potential to contribute to fulfilling the perceived priorities of the institution. Additional losses are associated with economic impacts of reduced trade with service and supplies vendors in the community.

The risk index

The risk index, then, is the product of the rank of disruptions, the rank of dependence on backup utilities, and the cost of potential losses for all animal care and research units. The higher the risk index, the higher should be the priority for disaster preparedness efforts in that area. The risk index is also a useful tool for convincing reluctant administrators to support disaster planning activities.

Attend emergency management classes

Emergency planners at research animal facilities can gain a professional insight into emergency preparedness via their State's emergency management agency. Most States offer free training in emergency management and welcome new professions to participate. It is recommended that laboratory animal facility staff take the "Animals in Disasters" Independent Study courses by FEMA (14) and attend professional courses on emergency operations planning, incident command, exercise design, and critical incident stress debriefing (13).

Construct potential disaster scenarios

An effective method to start preparing a formal EOP is to develop disaster scenarios using the "problem, needs, task, and resource" approach. This concept is based on the principles of all-hazards planning, in which it is assumed that the loss of function is more or less independent of the cause of the disaster (the incident). The definitions of these terms are:

Table 1 gives some examples of how the "problem, needs, task, and resource" concept can be used to develop an EOP. Emergency Operations Plans can also be formatted using the "problem, needs, task, and resource" approach.

Develop an Emergency Operations Plan

An EOP should include at least the following sections:

  1. Reference to the plan's legal basis
  2. Assumptions under which the plan is activated
  3. Concept of operations

Compiling appendices, in which resources (physical personnel and policies), SOPs, and reference materials are summarized is another constructive activity to increase awareness of the resources available for disaster response.

State emergency management agencies offer professional courses that will help laboratory animal managers become proficient at developing an EOP for their institution.

Legal references

The first section of a formal EOP should contain references to the legal basis for having a plan. Legal references should be approved and signed by appropriate representatives.

Plan activation (assumptions)

A formal plan should include a statement that clarifies under which conditions the plan is activated. Such a statement may include a phrase such as "any cause that threatens the implementation of the legal mandates and any potential or actual disruption to animal care and continuity of research, teaching, and service." Examples of these threats and causes of disruption include geophysical and technological hazards and security breaches.

Concept of Operations

Once some potential disaster scenarios have been developed and a vulnerability assessment has been completed, a Concept of Operations can be written. The Concept of Operations section is the core of the plan. Here, causes of function disruptions (problems) and their remediation (needs) are defined and tasks needed to correct any problems and resources to complete these tasks are identified. Primary and support Emergency Support Functions (ESFs) are grouped into operations, emergency services, and consequence management (Figure 2, Table 1).

Writing the Concepts of Operations requires time and thought, and should be a collaborative effort. However, a Concept of Operations section does not have to be long, and it should be simple to read and understand. Initial attention should be given to functions that have been identified to be common and realistic causes of disruption.

Plan review

The EOP should be reviewed at least annually in a meeting involving all possible stakeholders. Regular review of an EOP is intended to review procedures and availability of resources and can serve as a starting point for higher level exercises. A successful review of an EOP will identify areas that can be improved upon and, by correcting these areas, will increase the threshold of resistance to disasters.


ILAR and FEMA have similar interests in mitigating the impact of disasters on the research community. Many of the concepts used by emergency managers are transferable to emergency preparedness programs in laboratory animal facilities, and can be used when developing an EOP and for training. Progressive disaster preparedness activities that institutions can engage in are: establish a disaster planning committee, identify a legal basis for an EOP, define the assumptions under which a plan would be activated, conduct a vulnerability assessment, define and organize Emergency Support Functions, and train. There is a critical need in the biological research community for comprehensive guidelines on how to develop and implement effective EOPs.

Table 1. Examples of a Concept of Operations for an Emergency Operations Plan for animal research facilities.1
Problem Need Task Resources 2 Primary Emergency Support Function

Heating or cooling failure

Prevent animals from overheating or cooling

Restore heating or cooling

Back-up generator; building maintenance crew; procedure for contacting appropriate personnel

Public works and engineering (refrigeration, heating)

Personnel snowed in at home

Prevent respiratory disease

Provide personnel with access to building

Snowplows; local police (to escort staff to work); job description defining animal care staff as "essential"

Animal health and medical

Power failure

Access to tissue cultures is essential within 2 hours time window

Electronic key access to building needs to be overridden

Mechanical key backup; institutional security; procedure for ensuring that security is maintained.

Public works and engineering (electric power)

Rumors of horrific acts against animals

Control rumors

Hold press conference and clarify facts

Press conference; public liason officer; media tour of facilities prior to incidents

Public information

Exposure of response personnel

Evacuation of animals in a trial using carcinogenic or radioactive compounds

Provide response personnel with appropriate information to protect safety

Up-to-date signs through building; environmental management/OSHA staff; evacuation procedure for animals in trials

Hazard specific (chemical, radiation)

Feed and water has become contaminated

Continue nutritional study

Identify alternative feed and water supplies

Inventory of feed on campus; animal care staff, laboratory animal veterinarian; principal investigator; research protocol

Research continuity

1. This part of the EOP is a living document that should be continuously reviewed. Note that the problems, needs, tasks, and resources are more or less independent of the cause of the disaster.

2. Examples given are for physical, personnel, policy resources

Figure 2. Emergency functions represented in an Emergency Operations Plan for animal research facilities.

Image:  Heirarchy for Basic Plan Concept of Operations that shows individual components of 1) Operations, 2) Emergency Services, and 3) Consequence Managment


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  13. International Critical Incident Stress Foundation.
  14. Federal Emergency Management Agency.

See related AWIC Bulletin articles:
Animal Management in Disasters
Useful Web Sites for Disasters
This article appeared in the Animal Welfare Information Center Bulletin, Volume 11, Number 1-2, Summer 2000

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