As residents of the Bay Area, we know an earthquake is always possible. In fact, in 2008, the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) estimated that a 7-magnitude quake will strike the Bay Area by 2045. The last major earthquake to rock the Bay Area was the 1989 Loma Prieta event, which measured in at 6.9 on the Richter scale.
As evidenced by the recent quakes in Japan, precise earthquake prediction has not advanced in the last 20 years; there’s no way to know when or where a cataclysmic event will occur. But that doesn’t mean East County residents should adopt an ignorance-is-bliss attitude. Steps can be taken to prepare for the worst, and the recent events in Japan are proof that people need to take any precautions possible to enhance their chance for survival.
THREATS TO EAST COUNTY
East County is tucked away from major fault lines, but that doesn’t mean a major quake in this area isn’t possible. In the network of faults that runs through California, the Mt. Diablo Thrust Fault lies along the west base of the mountain, a few miles south of Antioch, southwest of Oakley and west of Brentwood. Although the fault moves an average of only 4 millimeters per year, it poses the threat of a large-scale earthquake, which the USGS suggests could occur in the next 150 years.
Those numbers encourage many to assume they won’t be around when a large-scale quake occurs, but earthquakes aren’t the only threats to East County. Floods, fires, heat waves and other natural disasters pose a risk, plus disasters such as a chemical spill caused by a derailed train, or a natural gas explosion such as the incident that occurred last year in San Bruno.
“These large-scale emergencies are impossible to predict,” said Lt. Ben Tolero of the Brentwood Police Department. “You never know what’s going to happen. A plane could crash here. You never know. It could happen anywhere. There’s no way to predict what’s going to happen, so you just need to be prepared for everything.”
CALIFORNIA LEADS THE WAY
Although emergencies can’t be predicted, local governments and agencies discuss and rehearse emergency preparedness protocols annually. Tolero and the emergency services team recently updated the Brentwood emergency preparedness plan and will present the revised document to the City Council this spring. Tolero said he reviews the plan every year, and the police department and the city take part in training exercises to make sure staff knows what to do should a large-scale event occur.
“Brentwood has an emergency operations plan. Every municipality should have a plan in place,” Tolero said. “There are guidelines for protocols about how you manage the event. There is a hierarchy system so that we know who does what as far as planning, logistics, finance and operations. We already know who is responsible for what, so when an event occurs, we are ready to manage the situation.”
California is the first state in the union to require cities to follow an integrated system to improve communication between agencies that respond to an emergency. The state’s Standardized Emergency Management System (SEMS) is a compilation of laws and regulations followed by city governments, police departments, fire departments and other agencies to keep everyone on the same page so that the reaction to an emergency is efficiently coordinated.
Per System standards, every city must maintain an Emergency Operations Services location to activate in the event of a disaster or emergency. In Brentwood, the police department headquarters includes a room dedicated to emergency operations management, complete with televisions, a phone network, wireless Internet, whiteboards for diagrams and maps, plus dozens of binders filled with strategies and protocols for managing an event.
Another part of SEMS involves identifying objects at risk should a natural disaster occur. Such objects are older buildings, possibly with shaky foundations or otherwise not in conformance to building safety codes. SEMS helps cities identify problem areas, and network with local, state and federal agencies to find funding to make necessary repairs.
Newer buildings tend not to pose the same threat. As new buildings and structures go up in East County, such as the Brentwood Civic Center or the new Oakley fire station, the latest advances in engineering are applied to these new structures to withstand earthquakes, a potential tornado and other severe weather.
The Los Vaqueros Reservoir, completed in 1998, holds up to 100,000 acre-feet of water. To ensure that the reservoir is stable, sensors were placed on the dam to send back information about seismic activity. The dam is also inspected regularly by Contra Costa Water District personnel. Since the dam was engineered to withstand the maximum credible earthquake for the area, Jennifer Allen of Contra Costa Water District Public Affairs said the chance of the dam’s collapse is highly unlikely.
“We took everything into consideration when the reservoir was constructed,” Allen said. “We applied the highest safety standards and beyond to ensure that the structure is safe. We do regular inspections, and if the sensors pick up any unusual activity, the issue is investigated immediately.”
Should an incident occur, Contra Costa County would enact its emergency plan, also based on SEMS, to handle an emergency.
THE IMPACT OF 9/11
In response to the events of Sept. 11, 2001, the federal government adopted the National Incident Management System (NIMS), which Tolero said uses California’s SEMS as a model. The chaos created by the terrorist attacks made it difficult for agencies to communicate with each other and get on the same page. Each agency had its own way of doing things, which made a cooperative front difficult to establish. NIMS allows the federal government to establish uniform guidelines for how national, state and local agencies respond to emergency events.
Tolero said all local governments in California have adopted an emergency protocol based largely on NIMS and SEMS, and knowing that neighboring cities are working with the same guidelines and a similar emergency system gives him confidence that Brentwood would react efficiently to any emergency.
State law dictates that public employees act as disaster relief workers. According to Lt. John VanderKlugt of the Antioch Police Department, the disaster relief team must take immediate action in three areas: life-saving procedures, evacuations and preservation of property.
“Protection of life is the number-one priority,” VanderKlugt said. “We need to get to the affected area and make sure the public is safe. Then, if there is a need for evacuations, we will initiate a synchronized effort to get residents to safety. And finally, we do what we can to stabilize damaged property.
“As we assess the damage, we have to determine if we need the aid of the county and our neighboring cities. If several cities are involved and the county activates its emergency system, the state will be contacted for aid as well. It all depends on what happens and what resources are needed.”
If an incident is citywide, neighboring cities can send additional police officers and staff to help manage the event. However, if a large-scale event occurs elsewhere in the county, East County could become a refugee area.
A REGIONAL ROLE
According to Oakley City Manager Bryan Montgomery, if an event occurs in Concord or Walnut Creek, East County cities could be asked to set up shelters for those displaced by a disaster. “State law designates that all public employees act as disaster relief workers,” Montgomery said. “Our first obligation as public employees is to respond to the disaster – not the temptation to go and find out how our families are doing. We’ve got roles to play.”
Like Brentwood, Oakley is currently reviewing its emergency operations plan. Oakley Chief of Police Bani Kollo is analyzing the plan and looking for areas to improve. Montgomery said members of the city staff and the police department will be attending a county-sponsored emergency simulation to better education themselves about what to do in the case of an emergency. City staff also takes part in yearly tabletop exercises in which a situation is presented and staff treats the event as if it is occurring in real time.
“You can never prepare for an event exactly, but the tabletop exercises allow us to practice how we’d react should an event occur,” Montgomery said. “In one of our simulations, the coordinator said, ‘OK, Mr. City Manager, you just got the call there’s been an explosion at Suburban Propane. Go.’ What do you do?”
Tolero said the beauty of NIMS and SEMS is that a general plan is already in place, so no matter what occurs – whether a traffic accident or flood – local governments know how to react to the situation. City staff in Antioch, Brentwood and Oakley are regularly trained and updated on protocols so that emergency responses are fresh in their minds. If they need further assistance, guides similar to sports teams’ playbooks help staff work through emergency scenarios. The old-fashioned, hard-copy guides – contained in three-ring binders – are invulnerable to power outages that can cripple computers.
“The thing we need to do as a city is be prepared for a large-scale event,” Tolero said. “It doesn’t matter what the hazard may be. We’ve prepared ourselves for a large-scale event because you never know what’s going to happen. We prepare so that we don’t have to ask, ‘What happens if …’ You already know what to do.”
WHAT WOULD YOU DO?
If you’re relieved to learn that the nation, states, counties and cities formulate emergency plans, one question remains: have you formulated an emergency plan for you and your family? Montgomery, Tolero and VanderKlugt all agree that residents need at least three to five days worth of supplies to get by following an emergency, including food, water and shelter. But even if you’ve already assembled your supplies, you need a plan for what to do if a disaster strikes.
“It comes down to the family,” Montgomery said. “You must have a plan. Most people don’t think it’s (a large-scale emergency) going to happen in their lifetime. There are a lot of scary scenarios out there, and people don’t like thinking about the worst-case scenario. It’s depressing, but they should. It’s better to plan and be prepared to help calm those fears, so if something happens, you’re ready.”
NIMS was first tested when Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005. Despite an organized effort, federal, state and local resources were overextended, and not enough personnel or supplies were in place to help those in need.
Montgomery said that since it’s not practical for the City of Oakley to store all the food, cots, tents, extra clothing and first aid supplies sufficient to respond to a large-scale disaster involving 35,000 residents, Oakleyites need to talk about what they’d do in case of an emergency and establish a plan.
First, create an emergency kit for your home. This should include non-perishable foods such as canned vegetables, dry cereal, crackers, canned meats, dried fruit and peanut butter, and water for every person in your household for a minimum of three days. Make sure to take dietary needs into consideration, and also make sure to stock baby food and snacks for children if needed. You should also keep a supply of medications, spare clothing and sturdy shoes.
According to the San Francisco Department of Emergency Management website, www.sfgov.org/oes, emergency kits should include flashlights, radios and batteries, first aid kits, gloves, goggles, plates, utensils and cooking materials as well. But remember another key human necessity aside from food and shelter: you’ll want to pack garbage bags and provide access to a five-gallon bucket that can be used as a makeshift toilet.
If your house is damaged and unstable, you’ll want a tent, sleeping bags and warm clothes to get you through the night in your backyard.
VanderKlugt said it’s important to keep all your important documents in a protected and easily accessible case. The packet should include photos of family members should someone from your group become separated, copies of health insurance cards, drivers licenses and children’s identification cards, plus copies of personal documents such as wills – all in one place should you need to evacuate.
Once you’ve created a kit, set up a plan. If you must evacuate your house, establish a rendezvous point such as the nearest streetlight or stop sign, where everyone will meet once they’re out of harm’s way. Also, establish a rendezvous point – at a school or your workplace – should an emergency occur while you’re away from home.
Tolero said it’s important to establish a family contact person who lives outside the area. Land lines and cellular networks can become overwhelmed and temporarily shut down, so a contact person outside your area gives you a better chance of relaying information to family members and friends who want to know if you’re OK.
Also create an emergency kit for your car in case you can’t get back to your house. For other emergency kit and plan suggestions, visit the Contra Costa Health Services website, www.cchealth.org/topics/emergencies, for other links to county, state and federal organizations providing emergency preparedness information.
If an emergency occurs and you have no place to go, look for an emergency shelter set up by your city, usually in cooperation with the American Red Cross. VanderKlugt said high schools’ high-capacity grounds and cafeterias (including full kitchens) make them ideal locations. St. Anne Catholic Church in Byron has an emergency shelter that can accommodate 250 residents. It features showers and a service kitchen, and through a partnership with the Red Cross, the church received disaster start-up kits for approximately 100 people.
As part of SEMS and NIMS, potential shelter locations have already been identified. The predetermined location closest to the emergency area (that hasn’t suffered structural damage) will be activated if a shelter is needed. Monitor the radio for emergency updates.
Or check your cell phone. Since more and more people are using cell phones as their primary means of communication, the Contra Costa County Sheriff’s Office has established a mobile emergency alert system so that cell phone users have access to the latest information with the touch of a button. If an emergency occurs, the county’s emergency notification system will automatically contact residents via landlines using a reverse 9-1-1 directory. To register for this service, visit the Contra Costa County Sheriff’s Office website, www.cws.cccounty.us.
While formulating your own emergency plan is crucial, you should also take steps to look after your neighbors. “If you have a neighbor on oxygen, and she’s 80 and she’s alone, you need to figure that into your plan,” Montgomery said. “We need to look after each other. You can’t expect that someone is going to come by and help her.”
Brentwood has a Community Emergency Response Team comprising residents trained to assist in an emergency, but since aid might not arrive right away, neighbors should check in with each other during an emergency.
If you’re a senior citizen living alone, recruit a neighbor to assist you in an emergency. The neighbor should know where your emergency kit is kept and be entrusted with a spare key to your house. Get your medical paperwork in order, including insurance papers, a list of medications and a list of medical equipment you use, including the serial numbers of these devices.
Senior advocate and Press columnist Marla Luckhardt recommends that able seniors assemble an emergency kit customized to their needs. Seniors suffering from arthritis should arrange quick access to a lightweight, easy-to-use flashlight. Packaged food stored in the emergency kit should be easy to open, and those hard-to-open water bottles should be pre-opened. Diabetics should include candy bars in their kits.
“The most important thing for seniors to include in their kit is a list of emergency contacts and a list of what to do,” Luckhardt said. “If they are older or have a form of dementia, they might be overwhelmed by a situation and not remember what to do. A list will help them focus and find a way to get help. The list should also include medications and food allergies or other allergies, such as a skin allergy, so that people who come to your aid will know how to best support you.”
Those subject to disabilities need to create a support network of family, friends and neighbors in advance. The visually impaired should always keep a cane nearby – say, next to the bed – and a whistle to help others find them if they’re in need of rescue and can’t evacuate on their own.
The hearing impaired should keep writing materials in their kit for purposes of communication, and a flashlight for attracting the attention of rescuers. The same goes for communication-impaired individuals.
Those confined to a wheelchair, in addition to providing quick access to a whistle, should review their evacuation plan with a neighbor willing to check in on them or help them evacuate.
Emergencies are scary for children. Explain your family evacuation plan to your children and show them where the emergency kit is located. Keep a list of phone numbers the children should call if they need help. Know the emergency plan of your child’s school and formulate a plan for picking up your children from school.
Your emergency kit should include books, small toys or coloring books to keep children occupied. And pack their favorite snacks such as granola bars or fruit snacks in case they don’t want to eat canned vegetables.
Your emergency plan should include your pets as well. Make sure to pack water and pet food in your kit, plus a pet carrier and leash. Pack bags and gloves for sanitation and make sure your pet wears an ID tag. Keep a photo of your pet and a photo of you and the pet together to document ownership. If your pet becomes separated from you, these materials will assist others in the search. Also pack a small first aid kit containing items specifically for your pet. Discuss an emergency plan with your veterinarian to make sure you have all the materials your pet will need for the first three to five days of an emergency.
For more information on how to care for others in an emergency, visit the Homeland Security emergency preparedness website at www.ready.gov.
Many resources for establishing a personal emergency plan are available, including the American Red Cross website, www.redcross.org; San Francisco County’s www.72hours.org; and Federal Emergency Management Agency’s family emergency preparedness website, www.fema.gov/areyouready, which offers a downloadable handbook. Pre-made disaster kits are available through organizations such as Emergency Essentials. Check out the program at www.beprepared.com.
One silver lining in the cloud of tragedy hanging over recent disasters such as the earthquake and tsunami in Japan is the increased awareness of and access to disaster information by way of television and the Internet.
“Every time an event like this (the quakes in Japan) happens anywhere in the world, it’s a real eye opener for people,” Tolero said. “It makes them question, ‘What if that happens here? Am I prepared?’ And that has forced people to think about these things, so they grab a hold of that and take the steps. I think the media coverage of these events has helped because it forces people to think about it and make sure that they’re prepared. You never know what life is going to throw at you, so you need to be ready.”