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January 28, 2009 > Union City takes emergency preparedness seriously

Union City takes emergency preparedness seriously

By Simon Wong

Tri-City Voice met with Union City Fire Chief Carlos Rodriguez on January 5, 2009 for an update on the City's Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) Program and Personal Emergency Preparedness training classes following last November's county-wide drill.

Frank W. Borden, former Assistant Fire Chief, Los Angeles City Fire Department (LAFD) developed the CERT concept as we know it today. The 1994 Northridge Earthquake reinforced the need to train the public to care for themselves and their fellow community members and to provide key support to the emergency professionals in the event of a wide-spread disaster.

Borden witnessed the remarkable skills and spirit of ordinary people when the Kobe Earthquake struck in Japan where earthquakes occur more frequently than in America. His research clearly identified community and government preparedness and response as key to survival and recovery.

CERT was adopted nationally when the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), the Emergency Management Institute (EMI) and the National Fire Academy set standards and guidelines to enable citizens and public and private employees to train as local CERT members. Responsibility has since passed from FEMA to the Department of Homeland Security.

Three issues need to be addressed: public awareness of the availability of CERT training and Personal Emergency Preparedness (PEP); delivery of training; creation of an officially recognized, CERT function within Union City Fire Department.

"To me a 'disaster' is an incident that taxes your resources, such as a shooting in a high school or something smaller than Hurricane Katrina or the Kobe Earthquake in Japan which is what most people regard as a 'disaster'," explained Chief Rodriguez.

"Union City's CERT is a small organization. The Council has appointed me to expand CERT and ensure that Union City residents are as prepared as possible. So, we're offering this course which has been available since 2001. We can go into the community and the community can come to us. We are prepared to do whatever it takes to deliver this life-saving knowledge.

"We need to train industrial groups, neighborhoods, house-by-house, block-by-block and the schools. I have a vision that CERT membership be a prerequisite for graduation. CERT members can also train others. It's important to capture people early before they are swept along and distracted by life. If we don't, we continue to have a vulnerable population that assumes falsely that someone else will help them immediately. The problem is that earthquakes are not a common occurrence so people tend to procrastinate and forget about the need for readiness.

"We teach some very basic skills such as when to enter a building or remain outside, how to turn off the gas supply, basic first aid, how to extricate people trapped under debris.
When the Hayward Fault moves, the earthquake will be devastating. Frankly, first responders will be able to handle, maybe, one incident. That's it. The area and the need will be overwhelming.

"The ability to fend for yourself and care for your neighbors will make you independent. There will be nobody else. We need people to understand that usual support systems will no longer be available. The 911 emergency response system will be gone; phones will not work. Now you are a victim by choice. Now you are also an emotional victim in the same way that a child pines for its parents. There will be no hospitals. Do we need a M.A.S.H. system? Medical supplies normally carried by the emergency services will be inadequate in a catastrophe. Aid and supplies will eventually arrive by air or by ship.

"CERT members also augment the City's forces. Trained volunteers can play key roles in a major emergency by assisting uniformed personnel with incidents. There will be many. For instance, think of the hundreds of people at the Masonic Home on the Hayward Fault. There will be fires everywhere, no water to fight them because there is no pressure, impassable roads... just imagine the magnitude of the devastation and problems," cautioned the Fire Chief.

Rodriguez cares passionately about self-reliance and disaster preparedness. He has personal experience of the devastation wrought by Hurricane Katrina. The lack of local preparation and, in the cold light of day, the absence of what is taken for granted meant he could do nothing for four days. People died. As a young fire fighter, he went to Guatemala as a relief worker and had to parachute into the affected area. Planes couldn't land. He has also been through the Loma Prieta Earthquake and Oakland Hills Fire.

Although CERT is under the auspices of the Fire Department, there are neither the personnel nor enough community volunteers to deliver the training as regularly or to as large an audience as the Chief and his few CERT colleagues feel is necessary. Classes are simply scheduled when possible and seats are limited.

"We need to develop a dedicated CERT force for that reason. Whilst volunteer rescue workers save hundreds of people, many untrained volunteers and those whom they try to help lose their lives. This is avoidable if people take the training," said the Chief.

"I am a realist. After attending the recent Earthquake Conference in L.A. where delegates from Argentina, Iran, Japan, Turkey and other parts of the world discussed their experiences of earthquakes, volcanic events, and tsunamis, America is clearly spoiled. We are not ready.

"I am developing a five-year strategic plan for CERT in conjunction with a mediator to clearly identify Union City's needs and to create a line item in the City's budget that will support this task. The City needs it. Without a clearly-defined goal and a structured approach it is impossible to quantify required funding accurately, to identify the appropriate programs and agencies for grants and other sources. We also need to find innovative ways of preparing the whole community more quickly rather than rely on the current piecemeal delivery to individual groups.

"The Fire Department's organizational chart needs to include CERT. This will focus attention on training and emergency preparedness and build momentum," stated Rodriguez.

First-line responders shoulder an immense burden. The community can reduce the load if they are personally prepared.

"In addition to coping with the loss of infrastructure, the immediate need is to deal with the citizens. Within twenty-four to seventy-two hours, how do you manage the psychological effect when the smell of death starts to affect survivors because refrigerated trucks cannot reach the corpses stacked in a makeshift mortuary area? There will be both the physically and psychologically wounded. What is the recovery plan after this? As soon as you start organizing garbage, human waste and corpses in the 'right areas,' people regain hope and can move forward. We can become a third-world country in a matter of five seconds. So, having a vision for emergency preparedness, managing the disaster, the psychological effect and planning for recovery is critical. It's a huge undertaking. We are not ready right now.

"We also need to know who is registered under the Americans with Disabilities Act, who is blind, who is deaf. There is a diverse community in the Bay Area; more than two hundred languages are spoken. There are also people reliant upon machines. What if the power supplies disappear? We don't know who those people are, their locations or who is looking after them? There is a tremendous amount of work to do," Rodriguez warned.

"We also need to start coordinating regionally. Fremont, Newark, Union City and Hayward each have their own CERT training programs. How much more might we accomplish if we were to form a coalition?

"There is a Fremont-based group consisting of essential service agencies in Fremont, Newark and Union City called the Tri-Cities Emergency Services Association (TESA) which is doing a great job. It is a start. Once Union City's CERT Strategic Plan is developed, we can approach our neighbors and work together on outreach, CERT training and membership. Jointly, we could probably afford to appoint a full-time CERT Coordinator to take care of all the cities.

"Los Angeles is as prepared as any city can be but their Great Southern California Shakeout Drill, the largest quake drill in US history, in November 2008 revealed serious gaps in local planning and highlighted the complexity of problems that would arise should a disaster hit Southern California. Emergency planners and utility providers have had to revise their planning. Where is Union City and where is the Bay Area?" concluded Union City Fire Chief Carlos Rodriguez.

For more information and class schedules in Union City, visit www.unioncityfire.org and click on C.E.R.T. or call Fire Admin on 510 675 5470 or email uc_cert@yahoo.com. For nationwide details, visit http://www.citizencorps.gov/cert/. For details about the Hayward Fault, visit http://tinyurl.com/8s43k9.

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