One of the things I constantly battle against as an emergency manager is the "flavor of the month" approach to emergency management. This is our tendency to only focus on preparing for an event when it's about to smack us in the face.
A good example is the current scare over Ebola. I mean, it's not like we've ever had to deal with such a deadly disease, is it. Remember how we panicked when H1N1 reared it's head a few years ago? And before that, SARS scared us silly. We also have the example of the 1918 influenza pandemic that killed around 50 million people. Yet are we prepared for a pandemic? Doesn't look like it, judging from the way things have been handled so far. So we're jumping through hoops to craft strategies that could have been put in place years ago.
And recent news here in California will come as a surprise to many: there's a serious risk of a major earthquake in the Bay Area! A recent paper in the Bulletin of the Seismological Society of America found the following:
From mean accumulation rates, we infer that four urban faults appear to have accumulated enough seismic moment to produce major earthquakes: the northern Calaveras (M 6.8), Hayward (M 6.8), Rodgers Creek (M 7.1), and Green Valley (M 7.1). The latter three faults are nearing or past their mean recurrence interval.
Suddenly everyone is talking about earthquake preparedness. as if we've never even considered such a thing before, even though we had a 6.0 earthquake in Napa less than two months ago.
Wake up people! The world is not a safe place. If you live in the Bay Area, earthquakes are a fact of life. Just because some scientists published a paper reinforcing what we've know all along doesn't mean that the risk of an earthquake in the Bay Area has changed from yesterday. It has been and still is high, just as it is for Seattle and Los Angeles. And Ebola has been around for years - we've actually dealt with an outbreak in the US before (read Richard Preston's 1994 book, The Hot Zone if you want some sleepless nights). We just haven't bothered to do anything about Ebola because it wasn't "in our face".
So stop living in fear every time Fox News needs to raise its ratings. If you're really worried about the end of the world as we know it, get off your dead butt and do something about your personal preparedness. And sleep soundly - I guarantee the world will not end tonight.
One of the risks that we accept in any emergency operation is that of liability exposure. We live in a litigious society where lawsuits are common, particularly in the aftermath of disaster. But can we allow the threat of a potential future lawsuit to stop us from doing the right thing? I like to think that most of us would say no. The city of Petaluma would not agree.
In 2010, a CERT volunteer driving home from training severely injured a pedestrian in a crosswalk. The attorney for the pedestrian named the city in the lawsuit on the basis that the driver was carrying city issued radio equipment used in the training. As is usual in many cases of liability, the city attorney opted to settle the case rather than risk a larger judgment in a trial. The case was settled in excess of $1 million.
As a result of this lawsuit, the city of Petaluma has withdrawn sponsorship from the CERT program. The program has been in existence since 2006 and has been funded entirely by grants to the Petaluma Fire Department. According to the program coordinator, withdrawal of sponsorship affects FEMA certification of the graduates and registration as State Disaster Service Workers, a designation which provides Workers Compensation coverage during disaster operations.
Legal experts familiar with the case believe that the city made an error in not litigating the lawsuit. There is existing legal precedent that does not hold an employer liable for accidents that occur while an employee is traveling to or from work, suggesting that the city could have prevailed had the case gone to trial. Even if this is not the case, the decision to withdraw sponsorship for the CERT program to prevent future lawsuits is hard to justify.
The real issue here is the mistaken belief that volunteers create a liability exposure that exceeds their value to the community. This excuse has been used on occasion to prevent the startup of programs such as CERT. The simple fact is that trained volunteers are infinitely more valuable to a community at the time of crisis than emergent volunteers with no training.
Do volunteers create a liability exposure? Of course they do, in the same way that any employee does. However, that exposure can be reduced through a well-documented program and a clear definition of what constitutes a volunteer’s job. This is merely good project management and there are ample tools to guide the development of such a program.
So don’t let the threat of liability exposure stop you from starting volunteer programs. Assess and mitigate the risks as much as possible but stop using them as an excuse for inaction.
How much do you know about solar power? You may have considered converting your home to run on solar power so that you would be energy independent during a disaster. However, as I was reminded at a recent energy conference, solar power doesn’t work that way.
I am certainly no expert on the electrical power grid, but in speaking to those who are, it seems that there is a common misconception that merely installing solar panels on your home makes you independent from the local power grid. The problem is that in any electrical system power generation must be balanced by the load, that is, supply must match demand. What this means is if your solar power system is generating more power than you need and you are no longer connected to the grid, it is highly likely that your appliances will burn out. This is the reason why home solar power systems sell excess energy back to the electrical grid.
What is needed is storage capacity for the excess energy. Unfortunately, this is not usually feasible for the average homeowner. The typical home consumes roughly 33 kWh of energy in a day. Providing standard lead acid batteries sufficient to store this level of energy would require a small room and cost close to $10,000. Lithium ion batteries are even more expensive, costing something on the order of $36,000. Unless you’re located in an area remote from the electrical grid, installing the necessary battery backup is cost prohibitive.
There are alternatives. Like anything disaster related, the question you should ask is, “what do I need to power?” If all you are seeking is the means to recharge communications equipment or to use small electrical devices, there are self-contained solar power systems that could meet your needs. There are even solar powered generator systems although their size, weight, and cost are prohibitive for the average homeowner. For most homeowners, the most cost-efficient solution is to purchase a generator and install a transfer switch that will allow the generator to power your home. However, generators come with their own set of problems such as the need for fuel and periodic maintenance and you need to take these things into account in making your decision.
Solar power is a good thing and has many benefits to the homeowner and the environment. Unfortunately, it doesn't offer any advantages in a disaster.
In my article last week, I pointed out that nonstructural hazards are often a greater danger in an earthquake than structural collapse. One of the hazards that I mentioned in passing was the collapse of unreinforced masonry chimneys. I use that specific example because of the extensive damage from collapsed chimneys in the recent Napa earthquake. It turns out that I actually underestimated the risks involved.
According to the California Earthquake Authority, chimney collapse has historically been the most common type of damage observed in an earthquake both in California and in other earthquakes across the United States. A recent article in the San Francisco Chronicle offered the following representative statistics:
Chimney failure doesn’t just occur in large magnitude events such as the recent magnitude 6.0 earthquake in Napa; it is observed in even low magnitude events. In fact, unreinforced masonry chimneys are one of the first things to fail in an earthquake. Unfortunately, many homeowners are unaware of this hazard. Even those homeowners who have their chimneys regularly maintained and serviced may not be safe. Chimney sweeps and inspectors focus on fire hazards and damage to the chimney, such as cracks in the masonry, but they are not engineers and are often not aware of the hazard that chimneys can pose in an earthquake.
Mitigation of unreinforced masonry chimneys is neither cheap nor easy. The chimney can be braced but this does not completely eliminate the hazard. The safest solution is to replace the chimney with a metal flue which can then be surrounded by a wood and brick façade. If this sounds drastic, repairs to chimneys damaged in earthquakes run well over $5000, not counting the high risk to you and your family. Having your chimney inspected and prepared for an earthquake is money well spent.
One of the things that we see during and after a disaster is a number of well-meaning people providing advice on how to protect yourself in future disasters. Unfortunately, a lot of this advice is based on what we term “disaster mythology” rather than factual evidence. The problem with myths is that there is sometimes enough of a kernel of truth contained within them to make them hard to lay to rest.
Case in point is the resurrection of two earthquake protection methods that have been around for years and have acquired a patina of truth even though they can actually cause harm.
Everyone knows that the best place to be safe in an earthquake is to stand in a doorway. After all, Tommy Lee Jones did just that in the movie, Volcano, a movie acclaimed for its completely accurate and factual depiction of what emergency managers do in a disaster. Right and I can get you a good price on the Golden Gate Bridge. The theory behind standing in the doorway is that the heavy frame of the door will protect you from structural collapse. The reality is that in modern construction the doorway is no stronger than the rest of your home. Moreover, the swinging door can actually hurt you by slamming into you or crushing your fingers.
The other myth that circulates following an earthquake is the so-called “triangle of life”. Proponents of this technique encourage you to lie down beside heavy objects rather than seek shelter under them. The theory is that this will create a void space or pocket that will protect your when your home collapses. The reality is that while void spaces do form when a structure collapses, we cannot predict where these voids will form. More importantly, modern building codes in the United States are such that you are much more likely to be injured by nonstructural hazards such as light fixtures, bookcases, or ceiling tiles, than by an actual structural collapse. In examining the injuries from the recent Napa earthquake, we find most were caused by unreinforced brick chimneys falling through the roof of many homes rather than the home collapsing.
There is nothing that will guarantee your safety in an earthquake. However, the well tested “drop, cover, and hold” technique offers your best chance of avoiding injury. So don’t be taken in by disaster mythology. Understand the reality and stay safe.