Communications is one of the most important resources for effective emergency management. Following the earthquake, phone systems were either damaged or overloaded. Many departments experienced immediate or near immediate loss of phones, while others had equipment that could not handle the volume of incoming calls. Alternate systems were necessary to communicate with response personnel and the public.

Internal communications were aided by daily meetings of department heads, once in the morning and once in the afternoon. Both internal and external communications were improved by the loan of 150 cellular phones.

A. Equipment and Personnel

Communications with City emergency response personnel were coordinated out of three locations, the Police Dispatch Center (PDC) , the Fire Dispatch Center (FDC) , and the Emergency Operations Center (EOC). All of these entities suffered some problems maintaining communications with response units in the field. These problems ranged from insufficient personnel to receive and direct calls, to equipment overloaded call volume.

The City's communications equipment survived the shaking relatively well, however like the public phone system, the majority of it was taxed by call volume. Increased call volume severely hampered both the equipment's ability to receive calls and the dispatchers, abilities to respond to them.

The number of calls received at the Police Dispatch Center during the early hours of the first evening more than doubled normal call volume for that time of day. The total call count for the month of October was a record for any one month since 1979, when call records were first kept.

Radio traffic also increased dramatically. Field units began calling in for information and assistance. This traffic soon overwhelmed burdened dispatchers.

In order to manage this volume, calls had to be prioritized or referred to the EOC. Only those callers reporting life threatening incidents received an immediate response. All others were asked to call back at a later time. Requests for information were referred to the EOC.

The Dispatch facility experienced some non-structural damage which added to the confusion. This included toppled bookcases, leaks in the overhead water pipes, and the dislodging of a few ceiling tiles. In addition, OPD lost its ability to record radio and telephone communications when the Dictaphone logging recorder was damaged during the quake. They were without a recorder for the first eight days of the response. The replacement equipment was ordered under the emergency procurement procedures of the City's Emergency Ordinance.

The Police Department took steps to improve the overload situation in the Dispatch Center. They recalled additional dispatchers and supervisors to duty. Some dispatchers reported back on their own initiative OPD Supervisors also re configured the radio channels to meet emerging response needs.

This reconfiguration worked reasonably well, but critical incidents were still being reported at the same time. This created potential officer safety problems as a call for assistance might not be heard in the midst of other reports.

The Fire Department's ability to respond to radio communications, like that of OPD, was limited by heavy traffic and insufficient personnel. It was further complicated by the static squelch which occurs each time a field unit transmits its status signal. This signal is used to report company status to the Computer Assisted Dispatch (CAD) system which tracks units, locations and provides information on resource availability.

This squelch frequently prevented radio transmissions from being heard by the dispatcher and thus complicated the dispatch and command centers, attempts to get a complete picture of the situation. This was most significant when Engine 5, having self dispatched to the Cypress, tried to report in on the status of the collapse and request additional resources. This report was never heard due to the squelch of other units reporting their status. It took another five to ten minutes before the first clear report on the extent of damage at the Cypress was heard at the Fire Dispatch Center (FDC).

It is normal practice at the FDC for two dispatchers to take calls, dispatch, and monitor radio communications at the same time. There were no provisions, however, for handling the work load created by the earthquake. Even if the phone lines were usable there were insufficient staff to recall off-duty personnel. However, at 6:00 p.m. the dispatch center supervisor assigned one dispatcher to phone lines and the other to radio traffic. This reduced some confusion and allowed for smoother communications.

Both Police and Fire use a Computer Assisted Dispatch (CAD) system. The CAD combines computers with a voice and data radio system to dispatch units, track incidents, monitor unit status, and communicate with units by telephone, speaker, or radio. Although the system is powerful and probably the most effective way to handle emergency communications, both departments reported problems with using the system effectively.

Additional personnel allowed the Police Communications Division to respond to all incoming calls but increased the confusion within the dispatch center and made it difficult to share information. The CAD system proved to be the best method for recording and sharing information within the Dispatch Center because everyone had access to a terminal. However, the terminal screens were not large enough to display the amount of information that needed to be shared.

At the Fire Dispatch Center communication was also difficult. Attempting to respond to all communication traffic and do dispatch at the same time, Fire dispatchers assigned units before entering them in the computer. Other units, unable to receive assignments due to power outages or jammed frequencies, began self-dispatching. This, combined with the CAD's inability to keep up with the rapidity with which units changed their status, made it impossible for the dispatch center to form a clear picture of resources assigned and those still available. In one case, this led to CAD assigning a unit which was already working at the Cypress to another reported incident. Additionally, some companies which never received their assignments due to power or phone failure were entered in the CAD as having done so. They were thus listed as unavailable until they were able to communicate with the Dispatch Center and report their true status.

Both the Police and Fire Departments obtained some relief when the Emergency Services Manager gave the media the direct number for the EOC. City departments and emergency responders within the EOC found themselves in competition with the public for an available line.

This situation was eased on the morning of the 18th when the phone company installed two dedicated lines, which numbers were not given to the public. The loan of 150 cellular phones, from a cellular phone distributor, a few days later further improved the situation.

Seven hours into the response, the police dispatch center resumed normal dispatching. The FDC returned to normal within 12 hours of the event. Police radio frequencies were returned to normal configuration on October 27.

B. Departmental Communications

Other departments suffered communication problems as well. At the Municipal Service Center, the Equipment Division of the Office of General Services could receive calls but they were unable to tell when a call was coming in because lights on the telephone lines were not working. The only way to receive a call was to periodically pick up the receiver and see if there was anyone on the line.

The Equipment Division could not communicate with the Fire Department because of incompatible radio frequencies and the lack of phones. Contact with fire finally was established by using a police car radio. It took OGS Equipment Division 24 to 48 hours to establish a base station at the Service center. During that time, there was some difficulty in dispatching personnel because of overloaded frequencies. Communications both within the department and with other departments greatly improved after 48 hours.

On the morning following the earthquake, few departments were able to communicate with their employees. Some departments did not have current telephone numbers for its employees. The Office of Personnel Resource Management attempted to supply these numbers, however, many of their numbers were outdated. The first contact many staff members had with their departments was on the Friday after the earthquake when they came to City Hall to pick up pay checks.

Recalling employees was not a problem, however, in all departments. Various divisions both within General Services and Public works either carried lists of employee numbers or had automatic procedures in place for calling staff back to work. The Office of Corporate Information Systems (OCIS) , the City Attorney's office, and Emergency services Division also had current staff phone numbers.

Representatives of the City Manager's Office decided that unless staff had specific duties to perform they should remain at home and wait for information. This decision was not announced over the broadcast media. Therefore, on the following morning, the majority of Oakland employees reported for work. They were met outside the damaged City Hall and City Hall West by their department heads, supervisors, or Deputy City Managers and told to return home.

Department heads were regularly briefed on the status of the response at meetings held twice daily in the Emergency Operations Center. The meetings were held first thing in the morning and again at the end of the day. Many department heads went from these meetings to daily meetings with their supervisors or full staffs. In a few cases information from the daily meetings did not filter down to staff members. When this occurred it increased the frustration and isolation felt by employees.

Finance discovered, early in the response, the advantage of good communications with staff. Initially staff was provided with information only on a need to know basis. This increased frustration felt by some employees. After a few days of growing tension management began providing staff with all available information, which resulted in improved morale.

Feedback from some City staff indicates that an address by the City Manager to the staff as a whole would have bolstered employee morale. Staff needed assurances from the administration that everything possible was being done to return departments to normal. It would also have provided an opportunity to respond to rumors.

Office of Public Works (OPW) faced a difficult communications challenge: they were given the task of directing and monitoring a large staff of volunteer building inspectors. During the first day, inspectors in the field carried hand-held radios. However, they were limited in their effectiveness. Cellular phones were supplied to the OPW inspectors a few days later. This markedly improved communications.

Managers in OPW, the office of Community Development and City Attorney's office used answering machines or voice mail to leave messages for staff, who were told to call in daily. Messages ranged from emergency status updates to work assignments. They were also given additional phone numbers for reaching administrators if staff just needed to talk to someone. Staff members were reassured by being in daily contact with management.

C. Public Information

Because the City had recently organized a PIO Team and developed an operations Manual for this function, six members of this team automatically reported to the EOC for their assignments.

Twelve-hour shifts were utilized for the first 36 hours. Thereafter, in accordance with the PIO operations Manual, 8-hour shifts were resumed on a 24-hour basis. This work schedule continued for more than 3 weeks in an attempt to provide accurate information to the general public, the media and to City employees.

Shift Leaders were selected to oversee the various aspects of public information (Emergency Information, Rumor Control, Field Liaison, Administration and Non-Emergency information). Each new shift was given a 20-minute briefing before assuming their responsibilities.

The EOC phone number was made available to the public within 30 minutes of opening the EOC. The phone system at the time provided four lines for these purposes which was not all together sufficient. Additional lines were installed by Pacific Bell within 12 hours of the event to support other communications needs within the EOC.

The public information lines were staffed by City employees who were otherwise unable to report to their normal jobs. The Office of Personnel Resource Management administered the Placement and scheduling of these employees.

Comprehensive Fact Sheets were devised and updated regularly by members of the PIO Team. This Fact Sheet was the basis for responding to the general public, the media and City employees. It provided current, verified information about: Damaged Buildings, Shelter Status, School Information, road access, utility status, general injury data, volunteer referral, etc. Hundreds of calls were received daily. Feedback from the public indicates this service proved invaluable for a two-week period.

Beyond this period, when inquiries were no longer of an "emergency" nature, different difficulties surfaced. Because twelve city departments were displaced as a result of the earthquake, difficulty was experienced in advising the general public where they could go or call to pursue normal business activities with the City.

In an attempt to mitigate this problem, a phone bank was established at 475-14th Street to accept and redirect incoming calls that were still ringing at unoccupied City offices. This process was not adequate and its inherent problems were exacerbated by the fact that City Departments were required to temporarily relocate more than once.

Although the City Clerk's Office was able to provide City staff with phone directories that were updated at least weekly to reflect the frequent changes that were taking place, the affect of this work did not reach the public quickly enough to avert a noted level of frustration.

The City's forced decentralization of operations and the resulting weakened communications systems led to additional public information problems as described in the following example:

City Planning was one of several departments which continued to hold public hearings. However, without the use of its computer and microfiche readers, City Planning could not identify those addresses that were affected by an issue, such as changes in land use. Instead, the department notified an entire geographic area of a public hearing. This was done manually which was very time consuming and resulted in over-notification.

d. Special needs populations

It was most difficult to meet the special needs of citizens who are hearing impaired. No television station used close captioning or sign language translators during the first 12 hours. An overloaded phone system also prevented these individuals from using their TTY systems to call out for information. Essentially these individuals were dependent on family members, friends, or neighbors for the initial announcements made through the television and radio media.

The other area where Communications were especially difficult was with non-English speaking victims. The City needed to translate public notices. The City's normal demand for Spanish and Chinese materials provided immediate and good access to translators However, there are many Asian dialects present within the Asian districts of the City.

The need to reach all the citizens of this area was vital. The City Clerk was tasked to rapidly develop multi-lingual translations in these dialects. City Clerk staff called the Northern California Mission Headquarters of the Mormon Church for assistance. The Mission Headquarters supplied the City with translators in seven languages, including Swahili. Thus, the City quickly developed the ability to deliver information to all its citizens within a few days after the earthquake.

Oakland was fortunate that it did not have as large a number of non-English speaking people affected by the earthquake as did Watsonville and San Francisco. Consequently, the demand for materials in languages other than English was not beyond its capabilities. However, written materials in foreign languages which could be photocopied and provided to victims were limited. At shelters and at the Disaster Application Centers (DACs), a good bank of translators was provided by the East Bay Chapter of the American Red Cross.

E. Media Relations

The Media Relations team comprised the City's Public Information Officer, the Mayor's Public Information officer, an Emergency Services Coordinator, and staff members of the Police Department's Criminal Investigations Division.

These individuals arranged and conducted press conferences, arranged interviews with emergency responders and government officials, and were the only staff authorized to respond to press inquiries. At the EOC, members answering public information calls were instructed to refer all press calls to these individuals.

In the first few hours, it became clear that the City needed a public information presence at the Cypress collapse. Initially, the Police Department charged its Patrol Division command officers with this task. This proved impractical as it diverted individuals needed in the rescue operations. The police then organized a media pool with representatives of local and national haws reporting agencies. The media selected their own representatives to the pool which toured the Cypress Street structure.

The Cypress tour was held every hour or hour and a half. Two police officers escorted the group, together with the Caltrans PIO, the City PIO, and one or two Fire Department personnel. This allowed the City staff to control the amount of time the press spent within the perimeter of operations. There were only a few occasions when certain members of the national press corps attempted to surreptitiously enter the perimeter.

After a few tours, it was learned that the different media formats required different amounts of time in an area so tours were divided into three groups -- television, radio and print.

A Media Command Post (MCP) was established within the first 24 hours and equipped with phones and a fax machine within the first 48 hours. The post was located in an area close enough to the Cypress to get a good view of the activity, but in a space that allowed police to maintain access control to the scene. At the same time, there was space for press vehicles.

The MCP was staffed by an Oakland Police Department representative, a Caltrans Public Information Officer, and two representatives of the City's PIO Team. The City PIO divided her time between the Media Command Post and the EOC.

During the initial rescue period, staff at the MCP held a press conference on the Cypress situation every half hour or so. Initially, there was no public address system established at the MCP. Press conferences were given over a police car public address system. This was replaced by a portable public address system which improved the delivery of information.

The Public Information Officer at the EOC responded primarily to phone requests for information from non-local media. The City's PIO also scheduled her interviews with the press at the EOC. Additional support staff could have been used at the EOC to write press releases. Additionally, demands for assisting live interviews for national TV media exhausted the City's PIO capabilities.

The biggest media event was the President's visit to the Cypress. This visit, with its security requirements and additional media presence, brought search and rescue operations to a complete halt during the time President Bush was in the area. It also diverted both police officers and firefighters from the Cypress operation to the President's landing for security and safety purposes.

F. Rumor Control

Rumor control was an important part of communicating with both public and staff. Employees working at the EOC phone bank received instructions not to deviate from verified information on the prepared fact sheets when responding to public inquiries. They were instructed never to give personal opinion or repeat unverified statements. Questions not covered by the fact sheets were referred to Emergency Services Division personnel at the EOC or directed to the appropriate department.

An approach used by the City Attorney's office to curtail internal confusion and control rumors was use of the voice mail system. Staff left messages for the City Attorney about current rumors and asked her to respond on the next day's message. Her response was recorded and made available to the entire CAO. This was helpful in curtailing the spread of false information.

The Public Information officers themselves had agreed to use a simple rule to guide their interaction with the press; no information would be given out which had not been verified. The PIOs spoke from the prepared fact sheets during Cypress press conferences, responding only to questions of clarification. This was an effective means of rumor control.

In addition to these precautions, there were television sets and radios at the EOC and the Media Command Post. They were watched or listened to constantly. False information was immediately reported to the PIOs who decided amongst themselves how to handle the situation. The City PIO contacted news agencies directly to remedy any factual inaccuracies.

Initial high estimates of fatalities published by the news media is an example of the use of unverified information. The media received information that fatalities were estimated at two hundred (the actual number was 42). This report was traced to the State Office of Emergency Services. State OES estimated the number of casualties based on a formula which considered time of day, day of the week, and average flow of traffic. Although the formula was reasonable, it did not consider the World Series and the fact that many people left work early or late to hear or see the game. This oversight resulted in a greatly exaggerated casualty count and heightened concern for many Bay Area residents. Oakland officials refused to estimate casualties, and provided only numbers of dead verified by the coroner.

  1. Prepare an Administrative Instruction directing all department heads and division managers to maintain current employee Phone numbers and develop procedures to recall employees in the event of a declared disaster which occurs outside the hours of the work day. (CMO)

  2. Increase the number of telephone lines going into the EOC and dedicate these lines to specific uses. (Office of Emergency Services)

  3. Make use of the Library's cable station, KTOP, to send emergency information to Oakland citizens, including updates on displaced City offices with current phone numbers. (OES, Library, OCIS, City Clerk)

  4. Update the Public Information Officers Operations Manual to include lessons learned from the Loma Prieta event regarding multiple media command posts, addressing different media formats, and providing interviews for live news shows. (OES, City PIO)

  5. Secure cellular phones immediately following a disaster to ]improve communications capabilities.(OCIS)

  6. Use voice-mail to communicate with employees. (All department heads)

  7. Provide City emergency responders access to common radio frequency(s). (OCIS)

  8. Reconfigure Fire, Police and Public Works radio frequencies to meet emergency response needs.(OCIS)

  9. Increase and redirect Fire and Police Dispatch Centers' personnel, following a disaster, to meet increased phone and call volume. (Police, Fire)

  10. Update the existing Multihazard Functional Disaster Plan to include the utilization of City Clerk and the Library as resources to communicate information to the public in the City's Emergency Plan. (OES)

  11. Establish procedures for the City to respond to requests for tours and visits by politicians, researchers, and foreign visitors following a disaster. (CMO/Mayor)

Damage Assessment, or return to 1989 Earthquake Exhibit