The topic is critical. For me the real question is how we can we persuade others to take time out of their busy lives to address such a topic that none of us wants to think about: that "IT" could happen here.
My interest in "being prepared" intensified two days after 9-11, when as neighborhood leader I was overwhelmed by phone calls from Midtown residents asking things like, "Can it happen here?" or "What can I do to help?
I have been involved with emergency medical systems since the mid-90s, including a stint of working for the county EMS agency, and for over 6 years have taken the lead for EMS as a Commissioner on the Santa Clara County Health Advisory Commission.
Two days after 9-11, I suggested to City Manager Frank Benest that we hold a series of "robust" emergency-preparedness workshops in Palo Alto, starting with south Palo Alto, with support from the Midtown Residents Association and Charleston Meadows Association.
The response wasn't encouraging. Mick McDonald, the city's emergency coordinator at the time, contacted me to inform me about PANDA training — not at all what I was trying to do. I wrote him that I suggested several citywide, city-sponsored workshops to be held around town focusing on what residents needed to know and be prepared to do in case of a major fire, flood, earthquake or biological disaster.
Over the years, the Midtown association has held multiple emergency prep meetings; our experience was that few came due to the scary topic. Folks are in denial when they do not see a disaster on the immediate horizon.
But I kept on. I called my friend Judy Kleinberg, and we forged a relationship on this topic that has continued for several years. We agreed there was a need for professionals in public safety and the city to come together and discuss gaps in the system: If there was a disaster in Palo Alto everyone would rush to the same area, and there would be many places not covered.
Judy formed a stakeholders group. Her invitation to the brainstorming meeting in December 2001 emphasized that the idea was to leverage what the Fire Department was already doing "in ways that will involve greater numbers of volunteers, people from neighborhoods (and) local businesses."
Also in 2001, we formed Palo Alto REDI (Resources for Emergencies and Disasters Initiative), involving Judy for the city, myself for neighborhoods and Henry Neugass for the schools. After a year of planning, PA REDI held one of the most successful emergency-preparedness events and product sales ever, with almost 300 folks attending. We had powerful speakers from the city, the Red Cross, PTA and medical representatives from the Palo Alto Medical Foundation and Stanford University, focusing on what YOU can do. Vendors included the Red Cross, ham radio suppliers, hardware stores and others. It was sponsored by 21 neighborhoods, the city and the PTA's Emergency Preparation Team.
That was the beginning, and we have continued working on this issue. Recently the Palo Alto Neighborhoods (PAN) group formed special-interest committees. I volunteered to chair the committee on disaster and emergency preparation — our goal was to develop plans for each neighborhood working neighbor-to-neighbor, block-by-block to raise awareness and involvement. We have had excellent participation, with 15 to 18 neighborhoods presently involved.
As the Weekly's cover story noted, "the city's (disaster) plan will address all city departments and critical services, but little beyond that. The expectation is that each individual needs to be ready to handle this on their own."
The real challenge is how to break through the apathy or denial that we all have for emergency preparation. We all KNOW we should prepare, but when the sun is shining (no floods in sight), school is out, and life is good it is hard to think about preparing for the worst.
Two other wake-up calls — besides last week's little earthquake — have happened recently that should spur all of us to refocus our efforts on preparedness.
First, the spike in neighborhood crime really brought home the message that knowing your neighbor and your neighborhood is vitally important. Midtown has had its share of crime, although not as visible as in Duveneck/St. Francis since folks write me directly and for some reason are shy about using the Midtown Association listserv. Privacy is key after a crime — many people feel violated and vulnerable.
Second, in north Palo Alto, the scare about the safety of Addison School and more recently Walter Hays students mobilized parents and residents in a big way.
Last Thursday's 5:30 a.m. earthquake was a third wake-up call, encouraging me to step up the effort in emergency planning. The co-incidence was too great, just one day after I read the Weekly's cover story on planning for pandemic flu and one week before our PAN meeting on this subject.
It is clear that we can no longer take a Pollyanna-ish attitude and stick our heads in the sand. We must find ways to engage Palo Altans (and residents of neighboring communities and the greater Bay Area).
But it is more than just preparing for a flu pandemic. The Weekly article states, "If pandemic flu never happens, there will be some sort of disaster in the future ... and we will not have wasted one minute of planning."
Chance favors those who are prepared. If you are not prepared emotionally or lack basic food, water and emergency supplies, then you and your family will be desperate if a disastrous event occurs. You might not use the exact plans you develop, but thinking through the process and taking a few steps will put you way ahead of the crowd as medical systems, food supply networks, power and emergency teams are disrupted or overwhelmed.
And we can have some fun along the way: Plan or attend a block party on neighborhood preparedness. Get to know each other better. We're all in this together. As pandemic expert Peter Carpenter notes, we must be ready to help ourselves in order to be resilient as a community, neighborhoods, families and individuals.
We are the fiber, the heart of the city. We will need to help our neighbors (or be helped) when that critical incident occurs.
(Published 6/21/06 in Palo Alto Weekly)