Masters of Disaster

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

Starting with just 24 people in 1990, the SFFD's program coordinator, Frank Lucier, says that 4,500 San Franciscans have already taken NERT training, and that 1,500 more will be trained this year in everything from home preparedness to fighting small fires. The trainees have also learned how to lift heavy objects and perform light search-and-rescue. With their thousands of knowledgeable eyes and ears, NERTs will help the professional services move their resources to where they are most critically needed. The NERTs don't cost the city to train, by the way; they're funded by in-kind donations from the American Red Cross and Chevron.

"There have been a number of disasters around the world ... where we've really gotten to take a look at what happens afterwards," says Lucier. "And the people who are there at ground zero when disaster hits are going to be the first responders, whether it's the Oklahoma City bombing or Kobe or Northridge. ... Unless [citizens] have skills, they're really going to be out of luck. They're not really going to [do] what they could be capable of doing."

Before any volunteer can lift a finger to help the government during an emergency, he or she must take a "Disaster Service Worker Oath or Affirmation of Allegiance," swearing to "support and defend the Constitution of the United States and the Constitution of the State of California against all enemies, foreign and domestic ... without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion."

Sound familiar? The state-mandated oath is like the one taken every day by armed-forces inductees and ordinary civil servants, and makes sense in time of war; but its practicality in peacetime emergencies seems questionable and somewhat McCarthy-ish. After all, who is going to subvert the Constitution when the city is on fire?

The OES's Frank Schober says the rationale behind this requirement is so that volunteers -- now "virtual state employees" -- can be covered by workers' compensation. "It's not to assure that people are loyal or not loyal, it's only to fulfill that segment of the law," he says. "It still may be arcane, but if we don't do it, then we have problems." In short, insurance is driving state disaster policy.

Readers may think it the rudest sort of joke that Muni buses will become the city's "Patient transport/evacuation" service in a major emergency. But it's true: Overheating, outdated, roach-infested diesels will be our smoky Florence Nightingales. Not only that, the EOP requires Muni to send "one motorcoach, radio equipped" to each ERD to serve as mobile command centers for other city departments.

Then there's water, or the lack of it. According to the EOP, the city abdicates responsibility for supplying food, water, and shelter. These tasks will be turned over to the American Red Cross: "In the event of a lack of a potable supply of water to a portion of the city, the American Red Cross has lead responsibility for distribution of potable water when it cannot be delivered through the City's water system. Water tankers are generally available for non-potable water distribution only."

The Red Cross's senior disaster specialist-preparedness, John Ramsey, denies that the Red Cross will become the city's drinking-water supplier. Mass potable water is one of those "things that the city and county's Health Department will work with," he says. "We don't actually have the water buffaloes [army tanker-trailers] ourselves, but the military may have them and they need to work with the city and county and some other agencies to provide those."

Where will the water come from, then?
Carl Hedleston says that is the Water Department's responsibility, and that Frank Schober is working with them to acquire fire-hydrant spigots that will allow citizens draw water directly from the Fire Department's surviving water system. In any case, water shouldn't be that great a concern in the first 72 hours, Hedleston says. "The common fallacy is that people will begin dying of ... thirst the minute the earthquake occurs -- it ain't accurate. It's more important for us, if there's water available for our fire hoses, to put out the fires. ... If someone goes thirsty for a day, frankly, it's not [that] important for us."

Then there is another section where basic fact-checking appears to have been ignored, under "Command and Policy Group: Policy Considerations." One task of the Command Group is to "Determine ... whether to control critical consumables in retail and wholesale establishments." The consumables listed are containerized drinking water, perishable and nonperishable food, gasoline, and pharmaceuticals.

But also mentioned are "Emergency water substitutes: carbonated beverages, beer, wine, etc." and "Liquor supplies."

One of the most basic effects of alcohol (or the caffeine in many carbonated drinks, like Pepsi) is that it dehydrates. Controlling the city's booze supply for "water substitutes" would only produce a citizenry that was thirsty and half in the bag.

"That's a real Herb Caen piece right there. If it wasn't going to come out, it just came out," says Hedleston, marking the relevant page in his copy of the EOP. He adds that the passage is meant only to raise the issue of controlling the retail alcohol supply during the first 72 hours of an emergency, a real concern in the case of rioting.

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