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October 17, 1989, 5:03 p.m., October 17, 5:04 p.m., October 17, 1990 - Are we ready and What is changed?

Prior to the earthquake of October 17th, We had a disaster plan which was designed to deal with anything that might happen. We still have a disaster plan, but its ability to deal with anything that might happen is in doubt. Actually, the Plan Is not all that bad - we are! Actually, we are not all that bad either. Fortunately, we do not have the misfortune to live in an area that has a lot of disasters, either natural or man made.

The fact that last fall we had a 7-1 earthquake, a crane collapse, and a serious building explosion all within 75 days is a long way out of the ordinary. However, all were handed with professional competence and effectiveness, so we must have had a plan. We also had some damn good people to implement the plan.

What we found out, though, is that the plan is in serious need of reevaluation and change. More importantly, we need to practice our response responsibilities more often and we need to have those people practice with us that would not normally do so.

Further, the fact that we came through our problem in pretty good shape is a tribute to both the people that responded and the fact that the severity of any of the situations did not stretch us far beyond our capabilities.

Let us look at what worked right. The organizational structure was good. People reported to work, most of them to the right location. Most knew what to do. Most of our equipment worked, and that which did not, was worked around.

What was wrong included poor facilities at both the main emergency operations center and at our own base of operations. Our radio system was nearly maxed out and the phones and lights either did not work or were not available where they were needed. People were not used to maintain situation boards. Press facilities were either very poor or lacking altogether and, because several radio towers were knocked down, we did not know, on a very big scale, what was happening. Helicopter support did not materialize until after dark so damage assessment was almost impossible. we were very lucky that there were a few hours of daylight after the earthquake for people to begin to sort out their lives and for us to begin our recovery efforts.

What has to change? We need:

  • A better E.O.C.
  • A better Departmental radio system.
  • A better facility for the press.
  • A clearer understanding of who is supposed to report to the E.O.C. to assist in keeping track of situation boards, running messages and keeping the press informed.
  • Better initial record keeping in addition to the situation boards.
  • Disciplined meeting formats and habits.
  • More complete training for all people in city government.
  • Better plans for dealing with volunteers and, for that matter, our own employees that return to work.
  • A place for our employees to rest when not on the line. A place is also needed for the volunteers.
  • Supplies, flashlights, batteries, cameras, and film, forms for many purposes, copy machines, and many other items that will make life somewhat easier, must be stored and kept fresh, as needed.
  • Systems and processes that will streamline our responsiveness and validate what we have done need to be developed.
  • Some of these things are under our control and some are not. Some require heavy financial commitment and some require a devotion of time and energy that we may feel are better spent elsewhere. What we do need to do is to sort out all of these things and get on with the process of revising our plan so that it will serve as a better guide when we have our next disaster, and, there will be a next.

    Let's go back to the title of this talk for a moment. No matter what we do, we need a plan. Without a plan we will just cast about without direction and never get much done except with a great deal of luck, and while we are waiting for the luck to happen, things will start to fall apart.

    Before the earthquake occurred, we had a plan, and because we had all participated in writing it, we knew what it contained and how to use it. As I said earlier, we do not have natural disasters on a regular basis so we do not have much chance to practice it. We get by with once a year drills. It is extremely important that we had these drills because once the disaster happens, it is too late to sit down and start reading the plan to see what you are supposed to do.

    The City's plan is contained in a number of manuals that are quite thick. Each Department has a piece of the action, and all of the individual pieces fit together to make an effective tool for dealing with most any situation. But if you don't know what is in your own plan beforehand, you will not be effective in responding to your duties and, as a result, the effectiveness of the whole response effort will suffer. The more you practice, the more natural your response efforts become and you will be better able to support the joint effort. It is also important that you practice with your counterparts in other Departments. This joint practice develops a sense of teamwork and comfort. in dealing with each other that is most necessary to the survival effort.

    However, as you respond in accordance with the general plan, you will be unconsciously modifying the plan to suit the given situation. The ability to modify your actions is important. The plan is not a straight jacket but rather a series of guidelines that will get you started in the right direction. Once started, you will then have to steer the course that is most suited to meet the demands that are placed on you.

    Therefore, at 5:03 p.m. on the 17th, we had a plan that was the best guess as to how things should happen. Because we had practiced the plan with our counterparts in other Departments, the plan worked. After the 15 second shaking that occurred at 5:04 p.m., the facts that we had a few hours of daylight left, that there was little wind, that most people were getting ready to watch the third game of the BART World Series, that most employees returned to work even though we were unable to reach them by radio, that many key people were able to respond quickly, and, finally, that the earthquake was no more severe than it was, all contributed to our early successes and made those hours after 5:04 p.m. livable.

    Fortunately, the search and rescue efforts were able to start in. daylight hours and there were many willing volunteers to help.

    I remember: That the Fire Department's light tower was in the shop for repairs --glitch. The E.O.C. did not get news of any value from the outside world --glitch. The helicopters that could have helped in damage assessment did not arrive until after dark --glitch. Supplies for the mass care facility in the Marina either were not there or else ran out too soon --glitch. Evaluation forms were non-existent and we did not have a fuel truck --glitch --glitch. These are some of the things that occurred after 5:04 p.m. that made a lot of us realize that our plan had some holes in it. None of these are insurmountable, but in aggregate, gave us a lot to improve on.

    This brings us to October 17th, 1990. Most of us have begun the task of revising our own operational plans. We are thinking in terms of storing supplies of forms, flashlights, and other equipment. We are reevaluating our existing equipment and other resources. We are budgeting to purchase replacement items or upgrade communication systems. We are planning training programs to intensify our commitment to respond and to utilize our resources wisely, and we are looking at the existing E.O.C. to see what might be done to make it work better on a short term basis, on a medium range basis and, finally, on a long term basis. We are also reviewing existing codes to see what might be done to strengthen buildings to prevent collapse and loss of life. This last is extremely difficult because of the serious socio-economic impacts of whatever action is taken.

    In my Department, we are planning a series of workshops to deal with some of the training issues. Some of the supply issues have been dealt with already and we have developed a very good E.O.C./Training Center. However, the hard issues - equipment, radio system and full scale drills (using all employees) have not happened because of the extreme cost.

    We have all participated in post-earthquake critiques and, I think, have all learned what needs to be done. My concern is that we need a city-wide practice to exercise what needs to be done by people who would not normally respond to emergencies.

    The next time, and there will be a next time, the intensity may be greater, the ground may shake harder, and it may be at night and raining. We need to be ready. We will never have a final plan. if we think we have, then we are kidding ourselves and living in a fools paradise. The plan will always need to be updated and practiced. Then, and only then, will we be able to say that we are somewhat ready. I hope that by October 17, 1990, we are in that condition.

    Whether you are planning earthquake safety strategy, asbestos abatement programs, or disabled access provisions, you need to have a plan. You also need to remember that the plan is just a guide as to how you might proceed in your endeavor. Never let the plan confine you to predetermined courses of action. Just as in our earthquake plan, we had to vary our actions because of darkness or other unforeseen conditions that were beyond our control; so will you because of the unexpected. Then take advantage of the unexpected, learn from it, and make it work for you.

    We are very fortunate that we started our facility condition assessment program before the eaxthquake. This gave us a head start on damage assessment and a good look at what needed to be done to repair our facilities. We started this program over a year and a half ago in anticipation of developing a series of bond issues to begin to repair our aging infrastructure. I am not going to go into detail about it now, but I am sure glad we had made the start that we did. our program does include the item on today's agenda.

    This brings me back to October 17, 1990. You need to plan for both asbestos abatement and disabled access in developing your emergency management plan. You need to consider and plan for the presence of asbestos when a building is demolished. You need to be able to contain it by watering it down and then plan for its dispdsal in a proper manner. Likewise, you need to provide disabled access to emergency operations facilities. This is necessary for people that may need assistance, as well as for operators.

    Return to 1989 Earthquake Exhibit.