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JUST IN CASE OF AN EMERGENCY

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

At 9:58 Wednesday morning, the lights flickered twice and went out. Then a rumbling sound loud enough to vibrate the floor filled the dark auditorium of the Beverly Hills Library.

Eighteen seconds later, when the rumble ended, about 80 people who were gathered in the room laughed, then applauded.

At Beverly Hills’ new, $120-million Civic Center, the end of the rumbling signaled the beginning of the first test of the city’s Emergency Operations Center and its 627-page emergency plan.

For 2 1/2 hours, participants from nearly all city departments, the Red Cross and utility companies went through the motions of responding to the aftermath of a 7.1 earthquake. Simulated emergencies included a partial collapse of the Beverly Regent Hotel, cracks in Greystone Reservoir, collapse of a school auditorium during an assembly, fires, gas leaks, chemical spills and the evacuation of Beverly Hills felony prisoners because of damage at the West Hollywood sheriff’s station.

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When the controlled chaos was over, the high-tech Emergency Operations Center had not lived up to expectations.

“We failed miserably,” said Deputy Police Chief Ron Garner, the center manager. “There were so many major crises occurring in rapid succession. . . . I never had a full command of everything that was occurring.”

The consensus was that the system was undone not by ineffective equipment or untrained first aid staff, but by paperwork.

Response time was slowed by a five-copy form that had small boxes to be checked and 16 bits of information to be penned in. Confused participants didn’t know how to fill out the form, which was required for each call that came in. About 275 forms were filled out during the drill.

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And although one piece of paper might not seem terribly important, the form is necessary to qualify the city for state and federal reimbursement in the event of a disaster, spokesman Lt. Frank Salcido said.

The newness of the facility also contributed to the slow response time, according to Bruce Gadbois, a coordinator from the California Specialized Training Institute, which had been hired by Beverly Hills to conduct the simulation.

“Many of the people responding from various city agencies have not worked in this facility before,” Gadbois said. “They’re having to use a system they’re not familiar with. That slows down the responses.”

The Emergency Operations Center consists of a coordination room, radio communication room and policy group room, and was assembled barely in time for Wednesday’s drill. Telephones weren’t installed until Monday, and some equipment arrived only the day before.

The Police Department supplies the center’s $34,000 budget and has spent $25,000 so far, Lt. Miles A. Lee said. Additional equipment is still to be purchased.

Compared to other cities’ facilities, Beverly Hills’ emergency center is “adequately sized and has some of the most modern fittings available,” Gadbois said.

It was put to the test by the simulated 7.1 earthquake on the Newport-Inglewood Fault, with an epicenter 12 miles south of Beverly Hills.

Dozens of workers rushed about in the coordination room, which doubles as a multipurpose room when not needed as the Emergency Operations Center. In an emergency, 45 minutes are needed to transform the room by bringing phones, tables, signs and supplies from a storage closet. For the earthquake drill, the city took a shortcut and set up the room before the drill.

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Workers wore orange mesh vests with stickers on the back to identify their departments when they weren’t at their designated tables, which were marked by signs suspended from hooks in the ceiling.

As calls came in, various departments recorded events on one of 13 dry-marker boards hung on the walls. Information was transferred to a form, which was then sent across the room to be entered into a computerized tracking system. Since the city does not yet have its own system, one was borrowed for the drill. In the center of the room, colored magnets marked events on a map.

Across the hall, department heads met in the policy group room and queried public information officers about the disaster.

A mile away at Beverly Hills High School, 50 students who had volunteered to be victims were bleeding in a classroom, scattered among overturned chairs and tables.

The students, some of whom endured 45 minutes of extensive makeup, had gruesome but realistic injuries: head wounds, shards of glass protruding from their necks, extensive burns, and broken and missing limbs. They moaned and groaned as firefighters assessed injuries, reading vital signs written on stickers worn by the students. A triage tag, noting the severity of the injuries, was hung around each victim’s neck.

Jeff Gottfurcht, 18, was dead.

“Something fell onto my head and crushed my skull,” he said. A four-inch bubbling gash on his forehead had crusted with fake blood. “I just want to go to the morgue now,” he said, waiting under an overturned table.

Caryn Mandelbaum, 14, had third-degree burns from a flash fire. “I’ll be scarred for life,” she said, picking at the pinkish gelatin on her forearms. “This is a good exercise for the firemen. Unfortunately, they don’t have enough people. There are too many victims.”

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Five fire units participated in the exercise, but in a real disaster, “this incident may well be handled with only one unit for hours and hours,” Battalion Chief Robert Cavaglieri said.

“You can think about these things . . . but you never find the weaknesses in the plan you use until you deal with patients,” he said.

Suzanne Hornwood, 18, was hysterical. She screamed and moaned as she lay on a tarp spread by firefighters on the school’s driveway. Hornwood wore a neck brace and pointed to her head injury: a bullet-sized hole in her forehead with blood running down her left cheek. “This is like the best day of school I’ve ever had,” she said.


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