Guest Opinion: In a disaster, what should/would you do? | News | Palo Alto Online |


Guest Opinion: In a disaster, what should/would you do?

A city emergency service volunteer offers tips of what to do when faced with a widespread catastrophe

If you had only five minutes to leave your house, what would you need to do?

The horrific fires in Napa, Sonoma and the Santa Cruz mountains remind us that disaster can strike both quickly and unexpectedly. It is not the end of the fire season, and there is a danger of fire in our foothills. High winds, especially coming from the coast, could spread downward to Palo Alto. It's imperative to think about and discuss with your family, how you could get help or what you would need to do.

Palo Alto Emergency Services states, "While we cannot prevent all hazards from occurring, we can be aware and prepare for them, to minimize their impacts on our lives."

How safe is Palo Alto and what are our vulnerabilities? For normal emergencies, we're in very good hands with adequate fire, police and EMT personnel, but in a disaster such as an earthquake or a massive fire we would be overwhelmed just as the wine country was. In that case we have to depend on ourselves and our neighborhoods.

Disasters are classified into three categories — natural, technological and human-caused. (See Earthquakes are what we are all concerned about, yet their probability is less than a severe flood or fire or a cyberattack. If you prepare for earthquakes, it helps you prepare for other disasters that may befall you. It is not sufficient to get an earthquake kit; there are other actions you should take to prepare.

First, make sure that all your phones — work, landlines and cell — are registered with Santa Clara County's reverse 911 system. Go to to sign up.

Next, have a family plan, build an emergency kit, get informed and volunteer, if you can. For details on creating a family emergency plan, see For details on what to put in your emergency kit, see

Air quality is a major factor for fires and hazardous-substance emergencies. N95 masks work best, but any mask you get needs to fit snugly around your face to be effective. Using a HEPA air purifier indoors can also help reduce noxious particle levels inside.

In a disaster, you should plan to be self-sufficient for seven days. First responders will be working hard to save lives, then infrastructure, then property, then the environment. The best resource is your closest resource. Use this peaceful time in Palo Alto to get to know your neighbor and others on your block. Don't meet them for the first time when disaster strikes.

Do you have any neighbors with special needs — limited mobility, special equipment like oxygen, non-English speaking, elderly, deaf, blind, small children? Have special concern for them, and check up on them in a disaster.

Be aware that Palo Alto has five types of Emergency Service Volunteers trained to assist first responders. A full description of the types and responsibilities can be found at Have you been visited by a volunteer from your block dressed in an orange vest and sporting an official ID from the City? The role of the block-preparedness coordinator (BPC) during a disaster is to report the status of your block and communicate back information from the city. They use a special type of radio, which allows them to communicate even when cell towers are down. The model is neighborhood-centric. Blocks report to a neighborhood-preparedness coordinator (NPC), who can direct local volunteer resources — a CERT (Community Emergency Response Team) if available — to help your block. Or the neighborhood coordinator can request resources from the City. If you do not have someone on your block or nearby, consider volunteering yourself or recruiting someone.

Communication may be difficult in an emergency. Will the cell towers be functional? Will voice be available or will the phone lines be jammed? Remember, a text has a better chance of getting through, since it uses less bandwidth. Data is sent in packets — queued until the network is available.

Plan how you will communicate with friends and family. Social media has proven to be invaluable. In recent disasters, the most popular and effective ways have been Twitter, Facebook (Safety Check), Google (Person Finder) or even YouTube. The city of Palo Alto has a very active social media presence with Twitter, Facebook and YouTube, as well as a smart phone app one can download to get immediate news on crime, urgent alerts and other news. The Palo Alto Police - IOS app is available for iPhone here and Android here.

Disasters are not only destructive physically, they are destructive financially. Look over your insurance and make sure it is sufficient for floods, fires and earthquakes. Put your important papers together. Imagine starting over. Which documents, vital records or photos would you need? It is suggested you make two copies of all these documents (the Emergency Financial First Aid Kit is free from Give one copy to a friend or relative; put another on a hard drive or flash drive. Make a video of your possessions and each room in your house, especially valuables, such as family heirlooms or jewelry. Back-up your computer periodically and keep important files on a flash drive as well as passwords, your contact lists, digital photos. These suggestions will allow you to get back on your feet more quickly after a disaster.

At some stage in our lives, we will all face potentially life-threatening situations and so should try to be well-prepared for things that might go wrong. While we do not like to think of disasters, knowing what to do, thinking ahead and taking the steps above can give us some peace of mind.

Annette Glanckopf is a team leader with Palo Alto Emergency Service Volunteers and a member of the Palo Alto/Stanford Citizen Corps Council. She can be reached at


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1 person likes this
Posted by Lia the CERT
a resident of Midtown
on Oct 27, 2017 at 1:30 pm

Take my wallet!
Wear stout shoes.

6 people like this
Posted by Neighbor
a resident of Leland Manor/Garland Drive
on Oct 27, 2017 at 6:05 pm

Thank you for writing about this very timely topic.

I would add Nextdoor to social media. I heard that the City's Public Information Officer says it's the best way the City has to reach residents. I also heard that residents extensively used Nextdoor after Hurricane Harvey. PS. I don't work for Nextdoor.

Like this comment
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 27, 2017 at 6:19 pm

I have found that PAPD in particular but also PAFD use Twitter, Facebook and Nextdoor to broadcast emergency information. You can view these without joining Twitter but knowing how to follow them on your phone and get into the habit of checking is a good idea.

2 people like this
Posted by Grab currency
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Oct 28, 2017 at 7:47 am

Given how dependent we are electronic payments. I keep a stash of small bills ready for this event. You can't expect credit cards are going to work.

Like this comment
Posted by Use silver
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Oct 28, 2017 at 7:52 am

Silver is an even better option in a true crisis. Cash can burn. And gold is too rxpensive per ounce.

Like this comment
Posted by Peter Carpenter
a resident of Atherton
on Oct 28, 2017 at 9:30 am

Peter Carpenter is a registered user.

Remember to keep a few essential items including good walking shoes in your car since chances are that a disaster will occur when you are away from your home.

5 people like this
Posted by Cassandra
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 28, 2017 at 9:44 am

Fire is a huge threat after earthquakes. We could have a fire like Coffey Park in Santa Rosa quite easily. Our infrastructure already can't handle normal traffic and whole regions of town are gridlocked from simple accidents or breakdowns. The Comprehensive Plan safety element has simply not been created to cope with such realities. If you bring a safety concern to people CC members like Kniss, they will basically turn a deaf ear. Safety is last here. The things people do to organize and ensure their neighborhood isn't going to burn house to house are far more important. Even most large "natural" disasters of the past decades have been mostly man-made tragedies, and we are headed squarely in that direction.

3 people like this
Posted by Peter Carpenter
a resident of Atherton
on Oct 28, 2017 at 9:54 am

Peter Carpenter is a registered user.

As an experienced wildland fire professional I am deeply concerned that our entire area, with its heavy (and beautiful) fuel/vegetation load and with the significant use of flammable construction materials is as significant risk of exactly the type of devastation that occurred in Santa Rosa.

We need better preparation, planning, alerting systems, voluntary and mandatory fire safety/fuel load reduction/removal zones, voluntary and mandatory removal of flammable construction materials and well defined, tested and signed evacuation routes.

This is a must read:

Web Link

7 people like this
Posted by Cassandra
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 28, 2017 at 9:57 am

Get your home's foundation upgraded so it won't slide off the foundation from lateral forces when the next earthquake hits, severing your gas line and setting your house and probably your neighborhood on fire. For most single-family homes this it neither that expensive nor difficult.

Get an automatic earthquake gas shut off installed, or better yet, convert to electric (and use solar which together have lots of other benefits).

Replace that old wood shake roof with a fire-retardant composition shingle roof. There is nothing you can do to make a wood shake roof as fire-retardant as a composition shingle roof.

Keep your gutters cleaned, and do this every year before the fall and the worst of the fire season.

Keep flammable vegetation away from your home. Juniper and other similar oily plants explode from embers and burn really long and hot, they will ensure your home burns (and probably your block). Just get rid of them. Old Ivy thatches tend to have a tremendous undergrowth that is hard to put out once alight, and tends to harbor rats and other rodents. Keep it well-tended or get rid of it.

Non-toxic fire-retardant gels like Thermo-gel can be sprayed on surfaces and even vegetation in the event of a fire spreading embers, and protects homes for many hours. They can be expensive and have to be replaced every few years, but large-scale purchases might bring the cost of homeowners kits down. These kinds of gels can also be used by professionals to prevent the spread of fire in neighborhoods.

Have a common number outside the area that everyone knows to call in the event of a disaster so that it's easier to get in touch. Social media is good, too, but going online could be dicey and use up precious device power.

Biggest point: planning ahead and prioritizing safety on a civic level, learning from other disasters (especially on the need to avoid complacency when it comes to prevention), are probably the most important things to do, especially here where complacency toward safety at City Hall borders on the negligent.

3 people like this
Posted by History Buff
a resident of another community
on Oct 28, 2017 at 10:14 am

Thanks to Annette for her many years of service to our community and keeping this issue in the forefront. It's easy to ignore the horrible possibilities that might await us in a disaster.

4 people like this
Posted by Stepheny McGraw
a resident of Midtown
on Oct 28, 2017 at 5:19 pm

None of us likes to contemplate a disaster happening to us. Yet, by doing these few things outlined in this article, we can all be personally better prepared -- and perhaps sleep better after the evening news knowing that we are.

Thanks to people like Annette Glanckopf and the team of Emergency Responders and Block Captains, we are better prepared in Palo Alto than most places.

5 people like this
Posted by Sheri Furman
a resident of Midtown
on Oct 28, 2017 at 6:00 pm

Sheri Furman is a registered user.

Thank you, Annette, for reminding us that an emergency can happen at any time and how to be prepared for it. Be sure to scan important papers (including insurance policies) onto a flask drive and keep it with other emergency supplies in a grab-and-go bag. Include a phone charger, cash in small bills, any required medication and spare glasses/hearing aids, etc. And don't forget supplies for your pets!

Like this comment
Posted by Bolt foundation
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Oct 29, 2017 at 1:52 am

Amen to the foundation recommendation. Having lived through big quakes in the 80s it seems a ton of houses slid off their foundations. And the solution is so simply.

Like this comment
Posted by Cassandra
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 29, 2017 at 2:18 pm

Somehow there are two of these threads. I hope they can be combined? Lots of good comments.

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