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Tougher Quake Safeguards at Schools Urged

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The safety of schoolchildren cannot be guaranteed in a major earthquake unless educators aggressively step up disaster preparedness, a task force told a state Senate committee Wednesday.

Schools and campus personnel must be better equipped for emergencies in order to ensure the well-being of students, the task force concluded.

Impaneled after the Northridge temblor, the task force of San Fernando Valley activists delivered its biggest punch in the final pages of an 80-page report: the prediction of a “tsunami of litigation” against negligent school districts should a quake occur during school hours.

“This task force has concluded that in order to save lives throughout our communities, disaster preparedness at all school sites must become a major and immediate priority,” its members declared in the report to the Senate Select Committee on the Northridge Earthquake.

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While outlining recommendations to the fact-finding committee, co-chairwoman Diana Dixon-Davis noted that none of the last 10 major earthquakes in California have struck while children were in school.

“I don’t know how much longer the luck for the state of California will hold. Statistically speaking, we are ripe for having a major earthquake during school hours,” Dixon-Davis said. “We need to quit this gamble while we are ahead--quit not being prepared, quit not being trained.”

Among the problems evident in the Los Angeles Unified School District and elsewhere is the spotty implementation of safety procedures, which are in place on some campuses and not on others.

Many principals simply fail to follow through in adopting disaster plans passed down by their superiors, the panel found.

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Calling for creation of an oversight agency with the authority to force compliance, Stephanie Carter, a parent activist and task force co-chairwoman, said: “We need somebody to actually come back with some muscle and make the site administrators do it. There’s nobody back there beating the grass to make sure these things are getting done.”

For example, only one-third of Los Angeles Unified School District sites have storage bins on campus to hold vital emergency supplies such as food and water in the event of building collapses.

“We want them districtwide,” said Roger Rasmussen, an LAUSD disaster coordinator and task force member, noting that those inconsistencies could be corrected with more funding.

The cost of supplying the containers to every school in California would amount to a one-time expenditure of $40 million, he said, urging the panel to support placing a bond measure on an upcoming ballot.

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The task force also called on lawmakers to pass legislation requiring that loose classroom objects be secured so schoolchildren would not be injured if powerful shock waves were to rattle the classroom.

Small details such as the need to develop a brace to hold overhead lighting fixtures were called for by the task force, as well as the need to train teachers in first aid and search-and-rescue procedures.

Task force members also sought legislation requiring high school students to take classes in basic first aid techniques. In addition, they asked lawmakers to require teachers to undergo disaster preparedness training in order to obtain their credentials.

Hearing the recommendations of the education task force, as well as a separate small-business task force, were state Sens. David A. Roberti (D-Van Nuys), Tom Hayden (D-Santa Monica), Art Torres (D-Los Angeles), Cathie Wright (R-Simi Valley) and Quentin L. Kopp (I-San Francisco).

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The senators said they will examine the findings in an effort to find ways to shore up earthquake readiness at schools and the approximately 800 state and local agencies charged with implementing disaster relief.

Noting how difficult it can be to arrive at solutions at a time of fiscal uncertainty, Hayden said he hoped the Legislature would depart from its typical pattern of “negligence and inertia.”

“What will happen is that history will repeat itself unless we step in to intervene with tremendous energy,” Hayden said. “I just believe it’s negligence combined with inertia. And we’re in the inertia phase now. . . . It’s all around us when we’re in a budget crisis.”

The small-business task force called for the introduction of a proposal they dubbed the Earthquake Mitigation and Recovery Act, warning that failure to act “will most assuredly lead to cataclysmic consequences.”

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Designed to allow enactment of a broad set of emergency powers in the aftermath of a big quake, the proposed law addresses a wide swath of problems that surfaced after the Jan. 17 temblor.

Perhaps most significant to consumers, the act would mandate minimum training, testing and licensing of insurance adjusters, some of whom were recruited from out of state to handle the heavy load of claims after the Northridge quake.

Like the education task force, the business leaders called for formation of a state oversight agency such as a California Earthquake Commission to coordinate earthquake preparedness and response information.

Stringent new rules requiring homeowners to become familiar with their gas shut-off valves and high-rise tenants to review emergency plans were included in the task force’s recommendations.

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In addition, the task force called for periodic and regular upgrading of seismic building codes.

Although the Senate committee is scheduled to expire at the end of 1994, lawmakers said they hoped it would be extended into next year, allowing its various task forces to continue fact-gathering.

If the proposals lead to legislation proposals, it will be next year before any new bills are introduced.


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