Los Angeles: Emergency Preparedness Plan KO’d by Bureaucratic Red Tape

GELFAND’S WORLD--The Emergency Preparedness Alliance met for the fourth time last weekend. As some of you may recall from previous articles, this group is developing a plan to bring the public into disaster preparation on a broad scale.

The goal is to create a cohesive working relationship between the professionals (LAPD, LAFD, LASD) and the people who will be affected by a large earthquake. 

A lot of the discussion this time involved an excellent idea that is currently being blocked by bureaucratic thinking. How would your region deal with the lack of important items such as first aid supplies, stretchers, and water filters? What would you do for diapers? We rely on the existence of commercial supply lines which include warehouses, trucking companies, and stores. How will we function if the supply lines are impaired? 

One idea is to pre-position supplies around the city. That way, in a real emergency, supplies would be immediately available to professional first-responders and to trained volunteers. One clever way to create these stockpiles is to put used cargo containers full of supplies around the city. We're talking about the kind of cargo containers that come across the Pacific Ocean on ships and are then transferred to trains and trucks for local delivery. 

For a long time, containers -- what are called "cans" in the local argot -- arrived here full of electronics and other high value goods, only to be sent back to Asia either empty or carrying scrap. Local entrepreneurs figured out that they could buy the used containers for very little, and convert them into useful storage boxes. Adaptive reuse of shipping containers has become a cottage industry along the west coast seaports.

So local organizations such as neighborhood councils have been considering the use of cargo containers as storage depots for emergency supplies. 

This resulted in a vigorous discussion at the Emergency Preparedness Alliance meeting. Right now, the working model is that containers would be purchased by neighborhood councils and placed around the city, and that they would be stocked with items that are useful to the first-responders in the initial phase of a disaster. 

The list of proposed items includes supplies that are useful in dealing with minor injuries along with some items (such as the diapers mentioned above) whose scarcity would become something of an emergency during the first few days of a disaster. 

Thus we might imagine a neighborhood emergency supply box stocked with bandages, antiseptics, light weight stretchers, water purification devices, flashlights, and lots of batteries. You can think of your own list, but the basic idea is fairly straightforward. 

The path to creating such emergency storage depots is not complicated. The containers themselves are not expensive (a few thousand dollars, typically). The containers and stored items that we have been discussing are well within the budget of the typical neighborhood council or home owners association. Finding a place to locate your emergency storage container might be a bigger problem, but most neighborhoods have enough room in a city park, or perhaps in the parking lot of a supermarket or even a police station. After all, the standard container (like the ones you see on trucks) is only 40 feet long, 8 feet wide, and 8 feet high. That's not huge, but it's more than 2500 cubic feet. That's a lot of freeze dried mashed potatoes and elastic bandages. 

The neighborhood councils and the Fire Department would each have keys to the containers. That way, the contents could be distributed by the appropriate people in the most useful way. 

But there is a bureaucratic snag at the moment. The city officials won't allow neighborhood councils to buy and stock the emergency storage containers. Why? The officials are concerned about legal liability. Suppose somebody is provided food or medicine during a future emergency but gets sick. Suppose somebody is refused food or a stretcher by those who control the supplies. Lawyers worry about such things and city officials listen to the lawyers. 

The liability issue seems like a minor problem that could be settled quickly. My suggestion is that the mayor and the City Attorney get together for ten minutes some morning and figure it out. One straightforward solution is simply to accept the fact that everything the city does involves some level of legal liability, and agree to accept the minor liability that comes with pre-positioned emergency supplies. Considering the millions of dollars the city pays out over lawsuits each year, this addition sounds perfectly acceptable. The city could adopt reasonable conditions for the placement of the containers, the list of stored items, and the disposition of the supplies at such time as they may become needed. 

Another possibility raised by Board of Neighborhood Commissioners Chair Len Shaffer would also be acceptable. Neighborhood councils could allocate funds to a nonprofit corporation that would own the containers, stock them with supplies, and purchase its own insurance. Len points out that the Los Angeles Neighborhood Council Coalition created just such a nonprofit several years ago, and it could be used in this way. It seems like a roundabout way of allowing neighborhood groups to protect the public safety, but it might be the immediate solution to the red tape. 

Perhaps the City Council, the county Board of Supervisors, and the state legislature could enact reasonable legislation that would protect the city and its surrounding communities from legal attacks over pre-positioned emergency supplies. This is exactly the type of subject that is appropriate for discussion at local neighborhood councils and at their regional and citywide alliances.


(Bob Gelfand writes on culture and politics for City Watch. He can be reached at [email protected]