Sat, Jul

There is Some Good News:  LA is Getting Prepared for Emergencies


GELFAND’S WORLD - In a week of sometimes depressing news, I would like to take a pause to explain some good things that are happening in terms of emergency preparedness here in Los Angeles. They are currently going on at the neighborhood council level. The topic is how we are working to be prepared in the event that there is a major earthquake.

Back in the first year of the Garcetti administration, seismologist Lucy Jones worked with the City of Los Angeles to review our citywide earthquake preparedness. She determined that there were substantial weaknesses, and gave talks to city employees and neighborhood council participants. Out of this, we started to organize groups, develop training, and consider what supplies and tools we ought to have.

I will be talking briefly about the San Pedro area in the southern end of town, but there are other places which are doing similar things.

I am going to start a little unusually, by talking about a violent crime, but the lessons I learned are applicable to the prospect of a major disaster.

Back in 1997, I was witness to a murder in a small theatre on Fairfax. There was one survivor who obviously needed medical care. There was also a crime scene which needed to be preserved. At the time, people did not routinely carry cell phones, so there was a problem with trying to get hold of 911 and getting police assistance.

One of the problems we had in 1997, the lack of cell phone service, would likely be a problem in the event of a major earthquake in the present era. We can probably expect that some cell phone towers would survive for a few hours, but in the absence of electrical feeds, they will run out of power fairly quickly. So in terms of communications, as in so many other things, you will be on your own unless you have some other communications available.

The other thing I experienced at the crime scene was that total strangers and a few people who knew each other self-organized to take care of the wounded, call for help, and preserve the evidence.

So our main lesson is that in the event of a serious earthquake, groups of people will assemble on street corners all over the city, and they will organize themselves.

And that's where a little bit of training will be extraordinarily useful. People who know how to organize and get started -- and who have the needed tools -- will be way ahead in taking care of themselves, their families, and their neighbors.

The Start

Several decades ago, the Los Angeles Fire Department created a training program for you, the public, which it called CERT, and which stands for Community Emergency Response Team. It's designed to give you some essential basic training in responding to a disaster. One part of that training involves how to come together as a CERT-trained group at the point of a disaster so that you can respond in a meaningful way.

You can find a description here

Over the past few years, our neighborhood council groups have been designing a system to bring our own participants into the emergency preparedness system. One thing we recognized is that in the event of a major earthquake, local volunteer responders may lack simple needs such as bandages, splints, and 2-way radios. We decided to use neighborhood council funds and facilities to solve that problem.

Out of this has come a system which we call the Neighborhood Team Project (NTP). Down in my end of town, we appropriated a little over $12,000 out of our $37,000 of yearly neighborhood council funds. We bought 4 large boxes, the kind you see on the backs of pickup trucks. The boxes are designed to be placed in different sites around town. They are designed to serve the needs of the CERT volunteers who will assemble to serve the needs of an injured and shaken community. Those boxes contain everything the first responders will need to set up an emergency center. We've even included a white board and an easel. We will be including short range 2-way radios which do not require a lot of training, and which will allow volunteer groups searching the neighborhood to stay in touch and to call for additional help when that is indicated.

As you will have figured out, the CERT response is not the same as a hospital emergency room, but is designed to supply specific needs at the beginning of a disaster. The needs, in order, are (1) to put together the organized group of responders in the fastest way possible (2) to do an immediate search of the local neighborhood to locate injured people, fires, damaged structures, lost pets, and so forth and (3) to provide first aid when it is appropriate and possible.

Let's try to put ourselves in the aftermath of a major earthquake just for a moment. Those who have been through even a moderate earthquake such as the 1994 Northridge earthquake will remember that there is a feeling of being entirely out of control. You can't just get up and move to a safe and stable spot, because the floor is moving under you, and there is no stable spot. In the big earthquake, which would be approximately ten times more violent in total energy released, it is going to be proportionately worse. We can expect widespread property damage and a lot of mild injuries.

The best estimates are that we won't have all that many fatalities, but out of a region of ten to twenty million people, we can expect somewhere in the order of two or three thousand dead. This may sound like a lot, but it means that only one out of every ten thousand people will be killed, if even that many.

But there will probably be ten or twenty times as many with injuries. Most will be mild but some will be serious.

It's a challenging scenario, but there are things that all of us can do.

First, we are encouraging people to sign up for CERT training. There has been some difficulty during the Covid era, but things are starting to pick up again. CERT gives a beginners' view of how to deal with an emergency. Volunteers come to a prearranged place when there is an emergency. They are trained to put together an organization on the spot, and then to carry out their duties. They will check the neighborhood for damage and injured people, and to the extent they are able, they will care for the injured.

Our job as neighborhood councils is to provide the facilities described above, to encourage people to come together to practice their newly learned skills, and to engage in radio communication drills so that they are adept at skills that they might need someday.

We thank the people of Los Angeles for providing the funding and we thank the participants for being there. As of the moment, a new group of 20 people has just graduated from the CERT class, and the NTP has assigned personal radios to 18 of them so far. As a result, the southern end of San Pedro has a collection of people who have at least some training, who will be able to communicate with the authorities should it be needed, and who will be the nucleus around which volunteers can form.

(Bob Gelfand writes on science, culture, and politics for CityWatch. He can be reached at [email protected].)