Masters of Disaster

The San Francisco Office of Emergency Services unveils its new post-apocalypse playbook

The ERD machine is supposed to start itself as soon as the ground stops moving. Pre-assigned representatives of the major city departments, as well as workers from PG&E, the Red Cross, and Pacific Bell, will automatically report to their designated Battalion Stations, performing preliminary damage assessment on the way in. The ERDs will run as miniature cities until reliable links with the city's Emergency Command Center, where the mayor and normal executive authority reside, are re-established. In theory, this scheme will let San Francisco dodge the paralysis of top-down command that Kobe and its citizens suffered in the first 72 hours after that quake.

So far, this common-sense idea is being used by only a handful of other jurisdictions: in hurricane-prone Florida (Coral Gables and Miami) and Salt Lake City, which is also at earthquake risk.

Who's the Boss?
When John Bitoff met Carl Hedleston in 1991, Hedleston was the boss. The former Army lieutenant colonel was running the get-out-the-vote phone banks for Frank Jordan in his runoff against Art Agnos, and on the campaign's final night, Bitoff and his daughter walked in to volunteer. One thing led to another, and after Jordan made Bitoff the OES chief in March 1992, Bitoff persuaded Hedleston to accept a position as one of OES's five mayoral appointees.

Although all five OES staffers are Jordan appointees, they have some job security in Mayor Willie Brown's regime: According to two city officials unconnected with the office, the only people who know how to execute the new EOP are the current OES appointees.

Under Mayor Art Agnos, the OES acquired a reputation in the Bay Area planning community as a black hole, say several city and regional disaster planners. The old EOP was a great reference book, but so unfamiliar to city officials that it was ignored following Loma Prieta. (Current OES staffers refer to the old plan as "a doorstop.")

Even after that quake, "OES was [still] very, very deficient," says Jorge Palafox, a paramedic who is the Health Department's disaster specialist. "One of the major issues was not only that plans were lacking, but also dialogue between the ... response agencies. So OES made an effort to get [department] representatives in."

Using the new mayor's signature authority, Hedleston organized representatives from the often fractious city departments into a consensus-building committee. Jordan's honeymoon clout was "very useful in the early part of the administration because everybody's afraid of you," Hedleston says.

The EOP revision, scheduled to take six months, stretched into 2 1/2 years. Only last September did the Disaster Council, a charter-mandated group of supervisors and city department heads, approve the switch-over from the old EOP to the new draft.

The only supervisor to comment on the disaster plan so far is Kevin Shelley, who believes the OES is eager to rush the new plan through. Mayor Brown might want to review it, he says, and other city officials fret about the plan's failure to establish the citywide costs of implementing it.

Hedleston confirms this worry, saying only that implementation of the EOP will be "a gradual process" largely dependent on each department's budget.

"What if Brown has different ideas?" Shelley continues. "With all the pressing issues like Muni [and] 911 ... it hasn't hit the mayor's radar screen yet."

Meanwhile, the new mayor has made his presence known at the OES, taking a short-notice, no-cameras-please tour of the agency's Turk Street headquarters on March 5.

When the political dance concludes, the OES's first order of business will be to lecture city department heads, especially the police and fire chiefs, about the ERD system. And there are several "live" multidepartment exercises planned to test the new EOP. On April 18, the 90th anniversary of the 1906 earthquake, the OES will roll out several tests of the ERDs. Also, city departments will set up their own Emergency Operations Centers, separate from the ERD system, to test how well they communicate with the OES's Turk Street headquarters.

An actual ERD will be set up in Battalion District 10 in Bayview-Hunters Point, with city workers performing simulated search-and-rescue and hazardous-materials drills, especially appropriate given Hunters Point's proximity to the bay and several industrial sites. There also will be "simulated structural damage to buildings, freeways, and streets," according to Fire Battalion Chief Rich Bracco.

Bracco says the infant ERD system was first tested last Oct. 17, the anniversary of Loma Prieta, and that he was generally pleased by how well city departments functioned together. It was "probably the first time that I've seen all the different city agencies represented in one location, working together on a major disaster," he says.

In the April 18 test, the city's 49 emergency sirens -- installed in 1942 after Pearl Harbor -- will be activated. The OES's Schober notes that his department's budget calls for new sirens; the current wailers don't transmit speech, which would be helpful in the case of an evacuation.

Many city employees were told to stay home the day after the Loma Prieta earthquake by then-Mayor Agnos. But the EOP's new approach is to remind all city employees of their statutory responsibilities as public servants: to become "disaster service workers," in any capacity the government deems appropriate, in an emergency.

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