Allen Edwards had never considered being a neighborhood emergency services volunteer until disaster struck in 1989, unexpectedly leaving him in charge of containing a hazardous waste spill.
During the Loma Prieta Earthquake, Edwards explained, he was working as a manager at Hewlett Packard on Page Mill Road in Palo Alto when the 6.9-magnitude quake caused a large acid tank used for producing printed circuit boards to spill, releasing toxic fumes inside the building. After the shaking stopped, it became apparent that Edwards was the highest level manager still at work as almost everyone had gone home to watch the World Series between the San Francisco Giants and the Oakland A's, he said.
"The spill was all over the floor, with fumes everywhere," he recalled. "I called the fire department and they said, 'You're on your own.'
"The guy who knew how to turn on the fan to vent the building was at home in the 408 area code watching the World Series, and the phone system was blocking calls between area codes, so I couldn't call him."
Edwards went to his car, which was equipped with a mobile ham radio, and contacted a fellow ham operator in the 408 area code, who was able to reach the maintenance foreman, who then coached Edwards through how to ventilate the spill.
"I learned that in a big emergency, you're on your own, and radio is important if the phones don't work," he said.
Edwards now volunteers his services as an amateur radio operator at Palo Alto's Emergency Services Volunteer (ESV) program, which relies on residents to help promote preparedness efforts in their neighborhoods as well as provide supplemental resources to the professional first responders in Palo Alto and surrounding communities during disasters. The program has more than 80 resident volunteers and is always actively recruiting more.
Through the program, volunteers help the community prepare for disasters — earthquakes, flooding, intense wildfire smoke — by knocking on doors, getting to know their neighbors and creating advance strategies.
"If there's an emergency here, we're going to be essentially on our own. Our normal resources will be overwhelmed," explained attorney Helen Baumann, who volunteers in preparedness efforts in her Old Palo Alto neighborhood.
"We know what happened in Turkey — there weren't enough resources, and people were digging their relatives out on their own," she added, referring to the 7.8-magnitude earthquake that killed more than 50,000 last February.
Ken Dueker, director of emergency services for Palo Alto, said the city has just four dispatchers and four ambulances, with as few as eight to 10 police officers on duty at time. On any given day, there are up to 24 firefighters on duty, but it takes at least 20 of them to respond safely to one full-structure fire, he said.
The city's daytime population is more than 70,000, with an additional 35,000 on Stanford University campus. That number vastly increases with large campus events, Dueker said.
"When that earthquake's going to happen, we'll probably be in the middle of a Stanford football game," Dueker said. "If Option A is calling 911 and nobody's coming and you can't even get through, and Option B is that your neighbor might have some skills, I'd go with Option B."
Noah Diffenbaugh, Stanford professor of earth system science, recently warned volunteers in the program that extreme weather conditions are intensifying, which could trigger natural disasters. California is already in a climate with an increased likelihood of hot, dry conditions and less reliable snowpack, punctuated by extreme wet conditions. Those conditions will intensify in the future, even if decarbonization goals are achieved, he said.
Karin Thorne, a resident of the Old Palo Alto neighborhood, said California's extreme wildfires in 2018 prompted her to become a block preparedness coordinator.
She and her husband had just returned from an extended trip when "there were those fires, and the sky turned red," Thorne said. "That brought the whole thing home to me that we have to have a community that knows each other."
Since then, Thorne has recruited several neighborhood acquaintances to the effort. She also has tried knocking on doors of those she does not know in the neighborhood, with less success. Baumann said her role as a neighborhood preparedness coordinator for Old Palo Alto is a natural extension of other activities she's done for years, like organizing block parties. Knocking on doors to recruit more volunteers helps her get to know more neighbors, she said.
"You get to meet interesting people, and they're really nice and, every once in a while, you get somebody who's willing to be involved," she said.
But, like Thorne, she also encounters neighbors who won't open their doors, which she called "one of the saddest things."
More information on Palo Alto's Emergency Services Volunteer program and upcoming training sessions is posted at cityofpaloalto.org.