Quake Response Teams Hone Strategy


Several weeks before the Oct. 17 earthquake rocked Northern California, UC San Diego Vice Chancellor George Himel mailed out 14,000 questionnaires to learn what skills teachers, students and staff members had that would be useful during an emergency on campus.

"Responses were, at best, spotty," said Himel, who oversees emergency planning at UCSD. "In some cases, I got what you'd have to describe as smart-ass remarks."

Following the 7.1-magnitude earthquake that was centered near Santa Cruz, Himel's office was "deluged with responses," a surge he attributes to TV coverage that showed volunteers rushing to help restore order in Northern California. "Everyone's pace quickened after the October earthquake," he said.

The quake prompted Himel and other local disaster preparedness officials to reassess their own emergency plans. Several planners traveled to Northern California to see how their counterparts had coped. Most who viewed the damage said they now have a better understanding of how their plans will be tested and how they can be improved.

Some of the knowledge gained was relatively mundane. A water district, for example, learned that simple design changes could keep storage tanks from losing their water during a large quake.

Other responses showed officials from hospitals, utilities and businesses that comprehensive disaster plans do work.

UCSD, with a resident population of 5,000--swelling to 25,000 and more during the day--has made minor changes to its earthquake response plans following the October temblor. Himel believes the UCSD plan, which is similar to the one at UC Santa Cruz, will hold up well during a major quake. UC Santa Cruz's ability to restore order "underlined the necessity of having a written plan in place," he said.

San Diego State University disaster planners were impressed with the quick response of emergency officials at sister campuses in San Francisco, San Jose and Hayward.

"Planning works," said SDSU Police Lt. Tom Schultheis, who drove to San Francisco the day after the quake with a three-member team. "People did come together; they were cool and collected and they were very well organized. Their emergency operations centers were on line within minutes of the quake."

Schultheis and other San Diegans who visited Northern California believe that communication systems are the weakest link in local emergency response plans.

The city of San Diego's Office of Emergency Management sent a 13-member team north so its fire, police, building inspection and health care departments could learn from their counterparts in the Bay Area. The team issued a report identifying 67 issues it said the city must address to be prepared for the next major quake.

The report strongly calls for improved communication among the county's emergency coordinators, and cautions that, even though the Oct. 17 quake was not "the big one," rescue workers were hampered by a lack of coordination among departments as well as a lack of suitable electronic communications equipment.

"The thing to remember is that (the Bay Area's) problems, communications-wise, were nothing compared to if the telephone system had gone down and (if) the fire and police communications went down," said Michael McCormick, captain of San Diego's heavy-rescue unit.

San Francisco and Oakland "got lucky," McCormick said. "Oakland was dealing with the gigantic collapse of a (freeway bridge), which was obviously a big deal. But it wasn't the overwhelming catastrophic, everything-falls-down situation."

Immediately after the quake, field command centers in the Bay Area struggled to communicate with their headquarters, and "each was acting, to a degree, in a vacuum," according to the city's task force report. "This resulted in information not being shared, plans not being coordinated, misinformation being released."

Among the report's recommendations:

- The disaster office should review response plans to ensure that city departments are coordinating closely with each other.

- San Diego should establish an emergency management office, preferably reporting directly to the city manager's office. That reporting structure would eliminate they type of "jealousy" that developed in San Francisco when different departments feared their operations were being usurped by others.

- The city should consider purchasing mobile command vehicles for the city's water, building and engineering departments. The vehicles, equipped with communications equipment, would allow operations to be directed from the scene.

- The Fire Department and rescue unit should be given increased training on how to safely enter damaged structures following a quake.

Some trauma care experts also believe that San Diego's doctors should receive more extensive disaster training.

Scripps Memorial Hospital trauma doctors and nurses recently heard a firsthand account of the quake aftermath from James Betts, a San Francisco pediatric surgeon who used a chain saw to cut through the body of a dead woman in order to reach her badly injured 6-year-old son, who was trapped in a crushed automobile on the collapsed section of the Nimitz Freeway.

According to Betts, who amputated the boy's leg in order to remove him from the car, "working in the trauma center is one thing, but you have to be prepared for unusual circumstances" after a quake.

Although the freeway collapse occurred close to hospitals with trauma facilities, teams quickly moved to emergency facilities set up in tents within sight of the structure, Betts said. The leg amputation occurred inside the collapsed section, where ventilation and lighting made normal surgical procedures impossible.

The collapse also underscored the need for psychological counseling of doctors and rescue personnel who face the gruesome task of recovering bodies, Betts said.

On the corporate side, San Diego Gas & Electric Co., which sent crews to the Bay Area to help Pacific Gas & Electric Co. relight customers' pilot lights, subsequently began a "complete audit of our existing emergency plans to see if the experiences from the (Bay Area) quake and (Hurricane) Hugo (in South Carolina) can be added to enhance our plan," said Sharon May, who was appointed emergency preparedness manager at SDG&E; soon after the quake.

SDG&E; is fairly confident that its distribution systems--which are newer than PG&E;'s--will fare reasonably well in a major quake.

"PG&E; had a fairly good experience overall," May said. "We now know for a fact that the 'major gas fire' (in the Marina district of San Francisco, which received heavy media attention) was the result of a very specific and unusual circumstance. But in general, the gas system came through very well."

SDG&E;'s biggest concern is that San Diegans will panic in the wake of an earthquake and needlessly shut off natural gas. The company is struggling to find a better way to inform customers that gas should be shut off only if homeowners smell gas.

In the Bay Area, more than 90% of the 156,000 residents who shut off their gas after the quake had no need to do so, May said. As a result, PG&E; was swamped with the time-consuming and expensive task of relighting thousands of pilot lights.

"It's a safety issue involved," May said. In addition to minor inconveniences caused by a gas outage, "when people get impatient and try to light (furnaces) themselves, there's a danger of flashbacks and they can be burned."

SDG&E; is alerting customers with backup generators that many Northern Californians had failed to maintain their systems, and, "when it came time to use them, the facilities did not work," May said.

San Diego County's water districts are also incorporating changes based on reviews of what happened to the north.

The Helix Water District, which sent a three-man team to help repair a water system in a rural area near the quake's epicenter, has incorporated specific quake-related renovations into a $3-million program designed to bring all of its tanks to current earthquake standards, said Bob Friedgen, the district's general manager.

The district plans to add flexible piping and shut-off valves to some storage tanks that would probably be severely damaged in a quake similar to the Bay Area's.

On-site inspections completed shortly after the quake determined that pipes leading from some Northern California tanks were broken when the tanks were rocked by "water shifting back and forth, like in a glass of water," Friedgen said.

"With rigid piping coming out of the ground, there were a lot of failures, and, unless there was a valve, there was no way of closing it off," Friedgen said. "So an entire tank could drain."

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World