Masters of Disaster

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

"I think the public has a right to expect that these employees are going to not sit home," says the OES's Schober, "that we're going to use every single one of them that we can to mitigate the effects of a disaster."

A Visit to the Calamity Ranch
The OES occupies a sylvan setting in the 1000 block of Turk Street, just four blocks from City Hall. When the Level 3 whistle blows, the mayor and his department heads are supposed to high-tail it there. The rest of the mayoral staff -- excepting perhaps a bodyguard and press secretary -- will assemble at the Moscone Center, which will function as the secondary command center (bureaucratically, the Alternate Staff Operations Site).

Once inside, the mayor will digest information about the disaster and make the most critical decisions, Hedleston says. These include looking at the citywide firefighting picture, declaring a state of emergency, and possibly declaring a curfew and/or martial law. The staff over at Moscone will focus on longer-term goals, such as providing liaison with the outside world -- talking to FEMA, the state OES, and Travis Air Force Base near Sacramento, the designated rallying point for incoming federal aid. Staffers will also coordinate with the Red Cross to provide food, water, and shelter, deal with dignitaries and the media, and handle other secondary problems.

The command table at the OES awaits the disaster brigade: During one visit, there are 10 chairs grouped around it, sharp pencils and pads of paper waiting and ready to go. Draped over every chair is a purple nylon vest, emblazoned with the title of a city department head.

The OES looks like any other city office except for its proliferation of communications equipment: too many phones, multiple fax machines, and a multitude of other communications equipment positioned everywhere. Flip charts, maps, and computers complete the communications overload. Powering all of this machinery through a disaster, of course, will be a free-standing generator.

Rivaling anything afforded a Star Fleet commander, Carl Hedleston has at his disposal a desktop computer and modem, a laptop, a pocket cellular, a land-line AT&T phone, and a compact Motorola device that combines a cellular phone, a dozen channels of police and fire radio, and an 800-MHz channel, which is supposed to become the city's interagency standard by 1999.

On the day of my interview with John Bitoff, he is impeccably dressed in a double-breasted blazer -- navy of course. He is cheerful, polite, and patient despite the fact that he must also be tense: Mayor Brown has scheduled his first inspection of the OES for the following day.

The admiral -- as Bitoff invariably is called -- earns $80,727 of the OES's modest $429,859 annual budget for planning our way through the coming disaster. He acquired disaster credentials following the Loma Prieta quake: As head of the Navy's Northern California operations, he was Art Agnos' guest at Candlestick Park for the quake-aborted World Series game. Returning to headquarters on Treasure Island, Bitoff directed the airlift of earth-moving equipment to the collapsed Cypress Freeway in Oakland and ordered a destroyer to Hunters Point where the ship's powerful generators poured electricity into PG&E's grid.

Bitoff can be utterly professional and the soul of reason. But he remains accustomed to the perks of rank. On a visit to his office, I discover a black BMW sedan parked illegally in the long red zone in front of the OES, wheels not curbed. A glance at the windshield reveals a mayoral parking permit issued to "R. Adm. John Bitoff, USN Ret."

The Recovery Channel -- city cable Channel 54 -- will be the primary agent of the OES outreach following the big quake, says Bitoff. Its studios are downstairs from the purple-vested Table of Power at the OES headquarters, and to hear Bitoff tell it, information gleaned from the ERDs will be boiled down by the public affairs people upstairs and fed directly to you, the suffering citizen, from the basement studios.

"I think the psychological value of having the mayor or other high-ranking people here to ... broadcast, showing the people working [would create] a mental image of 'the city is doing something,' rather than broadcasting from an executive office," he says. "I want to be able to help people by putting up, say, FEMA forms, on the television, and ... do it, right there, 'You fill out one through seven and 11, and then you sign it down here.' "

"I'd also like to bring in psychologists and psychiatrists to do post-traumatic stress syndrome [counseling], to tell people that if they don't feel good that's OK, a lot of people aren't feeling good. And then to bring in people to tell them how to do temporary repairs on their homes or put a tarp on their roof, and a whole myriad of things like that."

Bitoff has earned strong marks from other department heads, but Supervisor Tom Ammiano is no fan. Following the damaging storms of December '94/January '95, Ammiano persuaded the board to pass a resolution saying that the city should seek federal disaster monies. That earned him what he considers an imperious letter from Bitoff.

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