Gear up for the Big One with help from friends

The basement below Barrows Hall was buzzing with activity this morning, since it served as the command center for UC Berkeley’s annual campuswide disaster drill.
At University Health Services Tang Center, volunteers simulated having injuries ranging from abrasions to a severed arm, allowing the clinic staff to practice triage and treatment.

The university police and fire departments and hazardous waste teams also established command centers  on campus.
Police command center, UC Berkeley disaster drill, June 17, 2010

 By Becca Freed

The university’s disaster response, involving squads of people and high-tech communications, is pretty impressive to see in action. But all Berkeleyans, whether we’re part of the Cal community or live, work, or study elsewhere, must expect a lag of five to seven days between the onset of a major disaster and receiving official assistance. Everyone needs to have a plan and supplies to support their households for that long.

Hurricane Katrina taught disaster-response experts that they may not be able to reach people within a week; officials used to advocate keeping enough supplies on hand for three days, but now they know that’s not long enough, according to Khin Chin of Berkeley’s Office of Emergency Services. Chin also said citizens should take to heart what all government and disaster-response personnel know: You must have your own household prepared before you can help anyone else—so household disaster plans are key to the wellbeing of the whole community. The city offers quite a bit of planning help to individuals, from basic disaster preparedness information to planning for your pets and hunting down hazards in your home. When planning for the next disaster, once you know your own household can manage on its own for a week, the next step is connecting with your neighbors and laying the groundwork for mutual assistance, Chin said.

Disaster response starter kits

San Francisco Neighborhood Emergency Response Team kit, courtesy of Flickr user luxomedia

Last month the city’s Office of Emergency Services awarded caches of emergency supplies to 10 neighborhood groups. The caches include supplies such as a 50-person medical kit, radios, fire extinguishers, and a large container to store it all in. These caches are one-time grants to the recipient groups, which had to apply and qualify by demonstrating a minimum level of organization and disaster training. The groups can keep the supplies as long as they are organized and maintain them, and groups may choose to supplement the city caches with additional gear at their own expense. In an emergency, city emergency personnel can use supplies they need from the neighborhood caches (and then replace them). Berkeley’s program is seven years old and has distributed four rounds of caches (placing them with about 40 groups), Chin said. Hurricane Katrina in 2005 prompted an influx of applications, he said.


The city hopes to continue offering the emergency caches next year, but the scope and structure of the program is dependent on funding levels. Check the OES web page for information on next year’s program as it becomes available.

Although the emergency supply program and application period for 2011 have not been firmed up yet, the city has scheduled ongoing Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) classes, which anyone who lives or works in Berkeley is eligible to attend. These classes, which include fire suppression, light search and rescue, disaster first aid, and more, are a primary requirement for receiving an emergency supply cache from the city. Information about signing up for these free classes is available at the Office of Emergency Services web page.

One neighborhood group that received an emergency cache this year is known as the Del-Cal-McGee group (residents of Delaware Street near Ohlone Park). The group formed about 1990 and at first was focused mainly on neighborhood watch and issues related to the park, not necessarily on disaster preparation, according to Kristin Leimkuhler, who moderates the Del-Cal-McGee e-mail list. About five years ago the group started organizing for disaster response by filling out “census forms” provided by the city, she said. (There is an example of a neighbors list in the Disaster Preparedness Handbook available from the city.) The Del-Cal-McGee group has its member information in a database that contains much more than simple contact information. It allows the group to cooperate and look after each other, with data such as medical information, which household has which emergency supplies, and who has specialized skills, as well as elements of the group’s disaster plan, such as where to gather and where to set up the medical clinic.

The Del-Cal-McGee group covers 70 households, 60 of which actively participate in the group. The group stepped up its efforts about three years ago, with more neighbors taking the city’s CERT classes and committing to more complex tasks, according to Sandy Miarecki, a neighbor who has been instrumental in expanding the group’s emergency response capabilities. In the past year the group has focused on increasing its search-and-rescue capabilities, Miarecki said. About 20 group members have CERT or equivalent training. About 12 households in the area have agreed to install vibration-sensitive gas shutoff valves, and they’ll get a price break because they’re doing it as a group.

Kick-starting a disaster-response group

Neighborhood disaster preparedness entails moving beyond a nodding acquaintance with your neighbors—to knowing that you can rely on them, and vice versa. The Berkeley Disaster Preparedness Neighborhood Network can help people get from the first stage to the second. The BPDNN, which is all-volunteer and unaffiliated with the city, both helps neighborhood groups get started (or jump-started) and serves as a clearinghouse for information sharing among existing disaster-response groups. It offers a low-cost CD or DVD on how to organize your neighborhood and is developing more videos and a field manual on what to do if you are a first responder. The BPDNN has a Facebook page and Yahoo group; it also holds a meeting every other month. The next meeting, on July 22 at 6:30 at the Berkeley Unitarian Fellowship at Cedar and Bonita, will cover how to develop a communication system and walkie-talkie practice.


Virginia Street disaster drill
Virginia Street/Virginia Gardens disaster drill, February 2010. Photo courtesy of BDPNN.

Some people have strong ties to a community within Berkeley but not necessarily to the block they live on. The Office of Emergency Services has been experimenting with outreach beyond neighborhood groups, to try to involve a wider cross-section of Berkeleyans in disaster preparedness. For example, the city has offered CERT trainings at St. Paul AME Church on Ashby—on the opposite side of the city from most of the CERT trainings, held at the Fire Department training center on Cedar Street. The OES has also reached out to UC student groups such as fraternities because they are a big subset of Berkeley’s population, and lots of students live off-campus.

Even modest disaster-preparation efforts can help you feel more capable and confident. As the BPDNN has encouraged recently, do something, and be better prepared when the inevitable happens.