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Supervisors tackle Civil Grand Jury report critical
of San Francisco emergency preparedness

OES Executive Director Laura Phillips responds to Supervisors concerns
San Francisco is unprepared for a catastophic event
at yesterday's Government and Audits Committee hearing.
Photo(s) by Luke Thomas

By Daniel Powell

July 25, 2006

A few years ago, Supervisor Tom Ammiano approached an elderly man wandering City Hall and asked if he needed help. The man said that he was concerned about earthquakes, and was trying to find out if the city's civil defense shelters from the '40s and '50s were still in use.

"I knew enough to say that I doubted that," Ammiano recounted. "But I didn't know where else to direct him."

Supervisor Tom Ammiano

The encounter highlighted for him one of the biggest problems detailed in the civil grand jury's report on emergency preparedness: educating residents on what to do and where to go in the event of a major disaster.

The report, released in May, paints a grim picture of the city's readiness to administer emergency medical services to large numbers of people injured in an earthquake or terrorist attack. Many of those interviewed by the grand jury believe that a large-scale incident could cause the system to "catastrophically fail" within 30 minutes, as swarms of "walking wounded" flood emergency rooms around the city, cutting off care to the seriously injured.

At Monday's Government Audit and Oversight Committee meeting, grand jury member Joan Trauner told Ammiano, along with supervisors Aaron Peskin and Michela Alioto-Pier, that more public outreach is necessary to avoid that scenario.

"Instead of inundating the ERs, there's an important need for the city to identify alternative delivery sites, train personnel and educate the public regarding their use," Trauner said.

Ideally, lightly wounded people would seek help at other care sites, such as neighborhood clinics. Trauner stressed that the expansion of public resources like the 72hours.org website were essential to making this happen.

"We need the upgrading of the 72hours.org website so that the public understands where and when they're supposed to go for medical care, and what they're supposed to do for self-sufficiency," Trauner said.

The supervisors also discussed the city's Neighborhood Emergency Response Team Training Program, or NERT, and its role in softening the impact of a major disaster. Begun by the San Francisco Fire Department in 1990 after the Loma Prieta earthquake, the NERT program trains community members in disaster and emergency response, with over 11,000 residents taking part in the course so far.

"Your first responders are not going to be the first ones showing up at your door," said Laura Phillips, executive director of the Emergency Communications Department. "It's going to be someone from your NERT program that's going to be there."

Alioto-Pier asked if NERT was receiving enough funding or attention.

"I'm concerned about it because it can alleviate some of the pressures from hospitals," Alioto-Pier said, later detailing an idea to put high school students through the training as a way of ensuring that every community has a group of NERT members in it.

Supervisor Alioto-Pier

Peskin expressed frustration at what he felt was "serious resistance" from the Office of Emergency Services in releasing funds allocated in May for disaster planning in the largely Cantonese-speaking Chinatown neighborhood. He said the planning was necessary to alleviate the "massive communication" problems that surfaced among non-English speakers after the Loma Prieta earthquake.

Supervisor Aaron Peskin (right)

During the meeting, Ammiano and Peskin also voiced frustrations that Annemarie Conroy, executive director of the Office of Emergency Services, had taken the day off and was not available to answer questions.

Wade Crowfoot, the mayor's liaison to the board, answered in her place.

"The Chinatown model represents a different approach to neighborhood disaster planning, but one that we are committed to helping you fulfill," Crowfoot said. "I'm very confident in a matter of weeks those resources can be allocated so that we can engage in that program."

Controller Ed Harrington, Mayoral Legislative Aide Wade Crowfoot and Supervisor Aaron Peskin sidebar on revellations of inadequate City emergency preparedness.




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