Southern California Voices on the Earthquake: The Long Road Back : Emergency Response

<i> Compiled for The Times by Penelope McMillan, Robin Greene and Molly Selvin</i>

Aftershocks are keeping anxiety levels high as Southern Californians begin to put their lives back together after the Northridge quake. People who have always depended on our freeways are reluctantly turning to public transportation and discovering its many benefits. Others from areas not affected by the temblor are learning valuable lessons about being prepared. And who can leave out the many volunteers who have shown us that in order to cope we have to work together. A look at how people are doing.


Chief, Fillmore Volunteer Fire Department, Ventura County

Our volunteers answer rescue calls, put out fires and respond to any disaster. To join the department you have to pass a physical, you must have a valid California driver’s license and you must live within the city limits of Fillmore. Most important, our volunteers must be able to leave what they are doing, at any given moment, to respond to an emergency.


There is only one difference in the way we respond to an earthquake and the way we respond to a fire. With an earthquake, we tell our volunteers: “Before you respond, make absolutely sure your family is safe.”

Within the first two minutes after the quake, we had our first units mobilized. Our first stop was the Fillmore Hotel, which had 80 residents and is about a half-block from the fire station. We rescued two children and performed first aid on some of the people.

The other volunteers began trickling in and, within 15 minutes, we were 90% mobilized. All our volunteers were affected by the quake; one will have to have his house torn down. But we are in charge of the lives and safety of 13,000 people. In the first 24 hours after the quake, no one had any sleep and we responded to 75 calls.

Most of our volunteers are business people. If they work a week straight, they’ve lost a week’s wages. And they gladly do it.



Scientist, chairman of Olive View Neighborhood Watch, Sylmar

We were concerned about looters the first couple of nights. I was here in 1971. We didn’t have any looting then, but things have changed. Most of the homes were not able to be closed up. They had broken windows and doors could not be shut.

On one street of about 50 homes, almost everyone was sleeping in a tent or vehicle. We set up barricades there with a group on guard at each end. We told people they could come in if they had identification or if we knew them. If they were coming in to visit someone, we told them we would escort them. We only had barricades at night. During the day, there were people driving by to look. I wanted to grab them and say, “Quit looking at what problems I have. Get some gloves and help.”


Software consultant, director of Sylmar Graffiti Busters

I knew the neighborhoods that had been hit hard. A lot of walls were down, but people had better things to do than pick up their bricks. We had the manpower to go in. We’d make two piles--one of neatly stacked bricks that could be reused and one of rubble in the street--to be picked up by the city. Some of those bricks are $1 apiece, so if you save 100, it’s worth something for the owners.

Nobody expected us, and a lot were very leery because they thought I was another contractor. Some of these people have been hit nonstop by contractors. They’d say, “Are you going to bill me?” And I’d say, “No, we want to help.”


The crews did very well. We had 10 to 20 people each day, ranging from age 12 into the 40s. The kids got a lot out of it. One house we went to was the home of a paraplegic. We cleared his whole side yard. They knew they were doing something useful and that this man was going to remember them for a long, long time. They felt valuable.


Red Cross instructor, Westdale Emergency Response Team

Once our homes were secure, the people in my area got out with our gear--each of us has a bag we make up ourselves that includes a hard hat, flashlights, medical items, radios and other things. We were on the street between 5 a.m. and 5:15 a.m. My son and I went door-to-door on our block. We checked to make sure that each resident was OK.

Most of the people we talked to had their shoes on, which was great because cut feet are the most common injury in an earthquake. Most of the people had flashlights.

We checked particularly on elderly or special-needs people. We also found on many streets that neighbors were already checking on neighbors even though they weren’t part of the ERT. There was a lot of community outpouring.