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7 Ways the Response to a Devastating Earthquake Has Changed

How emergency response would be different than it was 24 years ago following the Loma Prieta earthquake.

Most San Francisco Bay Area residents over 30 years old remember exactly where they were at 5:04 p.m. on Oct. 17, 1989, when the magnitude 6.9 Loma Prieta earthquake shook the region.

I certainly do. I was just getting ready to drive home to Palo Alto, a few miles from the editorial offices of InfoWorld, a technology publication in Menlo Park, where I worked. Our second-floor offices shook violently. The building seemed to twist and warp under the pressure. Bookshelves and desktops all emptied their contents into the aisles, but there were no injuries. Shaken up, I made my way home slowly through chaotic traffic and fallen debris. Others were not so lucky. The quake killed 63 people, injured 3,757 and left several thousand homeless. It proved to be both a major test of area emergency management and a wake-up call about the region’s disaster preparedness efforts.

Today Bay Area residents live with the realization that another big quake is in their future. In 2007, earthquake scientists led by the U.S. Geological Survey estimated that there is a 63 percent probability of a magnitude 6.7 or greater earthquake in the Bay Area in the next 30 years.

So what has changed since 1989 in terms of response capabilities? If a major quake struck today, how would emergency management be different than it was 24 years ago? There have been many lessons learned cumulatively since Loma Prieta in terms of emergency response, said Rob Dudgeon, deputy director of the San Francisco Department of Emergency Management (DEM), where he leads the Division of Emergency Services. “Things didn’t change all of a sudden in 1990,” he said. “But if an earthquake happened today, everything about the response would be different.”

Here are seven ways in which today’s response promises to be different:

1. Modern Emergency Operations Center

One of the most obvious differences is that today, there is a seismically reinforced and modern emergency operations center. “The EOC during the Loma Prieta quake proved inadequate,” Dudgeon said. Earlier this year, Emergency Management gave readers an inside look at the new EOC during the Golden Guardian exercise in May, during which agencies worked together on practicing for the response and recovery to a simulated magnitude 7.8 earthquake.

San Francisco now uses the WebEOC incident management tool for situational awareness and to help keep everyone on the same page. This year’s functional exercise focused on carrying out policies, response and recovery for up to 48 hours after the earthquake hit. Representatives of the agencies participating in the exercise relied on both technology as well as face-to-face communication to help each other follow protocol.

2. Standardized Emergency Management System

Earthquake response in California has benefited not just from previous quakes, but also lessons learned during other types of emergencies. In response to problems experienced during the Oakland Hills fires in 1991, the California Legislature passed a law requiring a clear incident command system during emergencies. The standardized emergency management system provides for a five-level emergency response organization, and is intended to structure and facilitate the flow of emergency information and resources within and between the organizational levels.

“Now we have a unified command structure, so we have experts in charge of their areas and not the mayor making all the decisions,” said Dudgeon, who was working on an ambulance in Oakland during Loma Prieta. “How we deal with multiple casualty incidents is different and communications with hospital emergency rooms is better,” he added.

3. Use of Social Media and Mobile Devices

The San Francisco DEM has adopted several social media channels and continues to experiment with them during events. The city uses a text-based notification system, AlertSF, and Twitter. AlertSF sends alerts regarding emergencies disrupting vehicular and pedestrian traffic as well as citywide post-disaster information to registered wireless devices and email accounts. Registrants can also sign up to receive English-language automated information feeds and alerts targeted to specific areas of the city.

“We believe in the power of the crowd,” said Alicia Johnson, resilience and recovery manager at the San Francisco DEM. She oversees the development of the Resilient SF program and long-term community affairs and education. “We don’t know if systems such as Twitter will be up when we need them, but we plan as if they will,” she said. “We use them every day in planning events and in situations like the recent airplane crash. Although social media, just like traditional media, can be the source of incorrect information, the information passed on by social media tends to correct itself.”

4. Closer Ties with Community Organizations

A report published by National Academies Press and titled Practical Lessons from the Loma Prieta Earthquake was based on the 1993 proceedings of a symposium held in San Francisco.

It noted that pre-existing social problems such as homelessness, hunger and lack of health care are worsened immediately after a destructive earthquake. The report recommended that community agencies develop policies to address these issues and become more involved in emergency response.

In fact, the aftermath of Loma Prieta led directly to the creation of an umbrella group called SF CARD (Community Agencies Responding to Disaster), which connects nonprofit, faith-based and private organizations with the network and knowledge they need to continue providing critical services after a disaster. Vulnerable populations naturally turn to these organizations immediately following a disaster for housing, food and essential services.

“People who went through Loma Prieta saw the potential for a new way to help nonprofit organizations provide assistance, get involved in preparedness and make the city more resilient,” said Brian Whitlow, SF CARD’s executive director. “During Loma Prieta, there were people volunteering to help the Fire Department fight fires in the Marina District. Nonprofit organizations are working on ways to give those people tools to help. And SF CARD is the conduit between the DEM and those organizations.”

Dudgeon noted that after Loma Prieta, government agencies began to realize that they couldn’t do everything. Previously there had been less recognition of the role of community groups.  “There was definitely a reluctance to engage in the past, even 10 years ago,” he said. “But now there is recognition that emergency response is not a total government show.”

“I give the DEM a lot of credit,” Whitlow said. “They have done a great job of reaching out and helping agencies prepare. We are an advocate and liaison in their EOC.”

The city also has a Neighborhood Emergency Response Team program of volunteers trained and supervised by the Fire Department. Other cities and towns now have Community Emergency Response Teams as well.

5. Drill, Baby, Drill

Another lesson from the Practical Lessons report was that organizations that had developed and tested realistic earthquake planning scenarios prior to the Loma Prieta earthquake were better prepared than those that had not.

The region seems to have taken this lesson to heart. The Bay Area Urban Areas Security Initiative (UASI), a regional effort to build core capabilities to respond to terrorism and natural disasters, has increased the number of drills in the region. In fiscal 2011-2012, the Bay Area UASI spent approximately $3.3 million on training and exercises. According to UASI’s reports, the region trained about 1,200 responders (as compared to approximately 500 responders in prior years) across a range of disciplines including emergency management, emergency medical services, firefighting, law enforcement and hazardous materials response.

In 2013, the annual Golden Guardian exercise involved a catastrophic earthquake in the Bay Area, with the goal of exercising and assessing emergency operations plans, policies and procedures for large-scale incidents at the local, regional and state levels.

6. Utility Infrastructure Coordination

More than 150,000 customers lost power during Loma Prieta. Today that figure would be closer to 500,000, because of the area’s increasing population density. Although many of the types of utility infrastructure that would be impacted by an earthquake are similar today, the resiliency and level of communication between providers is different, said Don Boland, executive director of the California Utilities Emergency Association. He said the association brings together utilities to study interdependencies, expedite getting systems back up and running as quickly as possible, and prioritize what needs to be done — providing pumping stations with power before stoplights, for instance.

“Energy, telecom, water and gas are like four legs of a dining room table. Without all four, the table is going to collapse,” Boland said. “We act as the state EOC’s utility arm. We hold mutual assistance compacts for all 41 power companies in the state, and are able to reach down to San Diego to help stand up resources if there is a 7.0 earthquake in San Francisco without waiting for any kind of damage assessment. The type of system we have for pulling resources from elsewhere did not exist during Loma Prieta. The utilities realize they are no longer silos and are working together.”

In San Francisco, a Lifelines Council is conducting an interdependencies study on infrastructure serving the city. The council seeks to:

  • develop and improve collaboration in the city and across the region;
  • understand intersystem dependencies to enhance planning, restoration and reconstruction;
  • share information about recovery plans, projects and priorities; and
  • establish coordination processes for lifeline restoration and recovery following a major disaster event.

7. Ongoing Efforts on Seismic Retrofitting and Land-Use Planning

Besides beefing up emergency response capabilities, the Bay Area is also doing a better job of understanding local earthquake hazards and addressing them before the next disaster. After Loma Prieta, San Francisco launched a 10-year-long study, called the Community Action Plan for Seismic Safety (CAPSS), to evaluate the city’s risk from earthquakes. In late 2011, CAPSS developed into the Earthquake Safety Implementation Program, a 30-year workplan and timeline implementing the Community Action Plan.

“A lot of the recommendations and the work of CAPSS are drawn from lessons from what happened during Loma Prieta, as well as during large earthquakes in other cities, such as in Christchurch, New Zealand,” said Patrick Otellini, San Francisco’s director of earthquake safety.

By the 20th anniversary of the Loma Prieta quake, the city and county of San Francisco had completed more than 180 seismic retrofits or total replacements of public facilities, ranging from small but critical pump stations and transmission mains to essential facilities like police and fire stations and the EOC.

The city also passed legislation that requires the evaluation and retrofit for “multi-unit soft-story buildings,” which are wood-frame structures containing five or more residential units, having two or more stories over a “soft” or “weak” story, and permitted for construction prior to 1978, Otellini said.

“We are working toward a more resilient city in terms of buildings and lifelines shored up so it will be easier to rebuild after an earthquake,” said Sarah Karlinsky, deputy director of SPUR, a nonprofit organization that works on a host of issues including disaster planning and regional land-use planning. “We have a variety of building types that are vulnerable, including these soft-story apartment structures that tilted during Loma Prieta.”

A 2013 SPUR report, called On Solid Ground, argues that good land-use planning can prepare the Bay Area for a strong disaster recovery.

No one knows how well the region will respond the next time a quake occurs, but SF CARD’s Whitlow believes the Bay Area is much more resilient today than it was in 1989. “The nonprofit organizations are embracing best practices in terms of working with emergency management, and groups like the Red Cross and United Way have really come together to work on drills. So we are not just talking about it, we are actually doing something.”