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 cityofpaloalto.org/thira.) 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 AlertSCC.com 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 californiavolunteers.org/familyplan/resources.htm. For details on what to put in your emergency kit, see midtownresidents.org.
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 cityofpaloalto.org/emergencyvolunteers. 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 ready.gov). 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 firstname.lastname@example.org.