Bluntly Speaking, Los Angeles is Not Ready for a Major Disaster … Here are the Inconvenient Facts

GELFAND’S WORLD--The twin hurricane disasters have shed light on the inadequate level of our Local disaster preparedness here in LA. Bluntly speaking, we are not ready for a major earthquake. I would like to present here an approach that could lead to public awareness and survival skills. It involves setting up a citywide volunteer communication system first, and then filling in the details which will involve offering a small amount of training to the public. 

One major reason that we are unprepared is that earthquakes don't provide the advance warning that we have in the case of hurricanes. When the earthquake hits, people will have to endure it wherever they are, and they will have to deal with the immediate results, whether it be a collapsed roof or a broken bone. 

As a society, we could get ready with comparatively small effort, but it would take an approach that differs substantially from what the city government is doing right now. 

The fundamental fact that we are beginning to understand is that in the event of a major earthquake, you will be pretty much on your own for the first few minutes. People will be stuck with sheltering in place. We know that there aren't enough firefighters or police to handle more than a small fraction (maybe one or two percent) of the emergencies that will exist in the first few hours. 

We also know that cell phone towers will run down within a few hours (they only have that much battery backup). Besides the loss of cell phone service, most of us will be without electricity or running water. These are survivable issues provided we have a moderate amount of supplies and have received some survival training. 

But right now, the city government is not providing the leadership that could make these things happen. 

What we volunteers have learned is that the city departments and agencies have their own plans. The problem is that they are not really working with the public either in the planning or in spreading the details of what their current plans look like. The agencies know what they plan to do. The rest of us have been left in the dark. 

We should point out that there is one exception which is called CERT. It is a training program (Community Emergency Response Team) taught by the LA Fire Department. The problem is that as of this moment, there are a total of 5 actual CERT trainers in the LAFD. CERT sounds like a good idea, but in practice it is way understaffed, and the 17 hours of training is a lot to expect most people to sign onto. 

We need to figure out how to provide some training, even if not to the level of CERT, and to get it to a substantial fraction of the millions of Los Angeles residents. If we could get to even one-tenth of the 4 million Los Angeles residents, that is several hundred thousand people. The obligatory conclusion is that the city and its volunteer organizations such as neighborhood councils have a long way to go in figuring out a way to get hundreds of thousands of people involved in their own survival. 

We can do it provided the city government and its departments work with the public rather than freezing us out of the process. We the public have to become part of the planning process. We are not seeing anything like that right now. We should demand that it happen. 

Still, there are things we can begin to do. The easy part involves stocking up on emergency supplies in our homes and in a number of designated places around the city. The harder part involves preparing the public so that in the event of a major earthquake, people will have the skills and personal tools to do a few simple tasks that could save lives and make their post-earthquake lives tolerable. 

Note that if we don't accomplish learn these skills, but still experience the big quake, most of us are going to be alive but we will be thirsty, hungry, and dirty and we won't get a lot of outside help for quite some time. 

On Saturday, September 9, the neighborhood councils held their annual congress at the city hall. Among the numerous breakout sessions, there were two meetings devoted to disaster preparedness. We heard from the city's Emergency Management Department, a representative for something called Ready Your L.A. Neighborhood, and from numerous members of the public. 

Let's start with the concept behind Ready Your LA Neighborhood (I will call it RYLAN for short). RYLAN is a plan for you and your neighbors to gather together and share information about your particular needs and capabilities. For example, your immediate neighborhood might include an elderly person who needs a wheel chair to get around and is therefore  going to be extremely vulnerable if a big earthquake knocks out power (no working elevators) and would suffer from possible impediments to getting out of a damaged building if hallways were blocked with debris. If her neighbors were aware of her condition, they would know to check on her in the aftermath of a quake. In addition, your RYLAN meeting would acquaint you with the existence of assets such as a nurse or a ham radio operator. 

The idea behind RYLAN is not wrong but it has a long way to go to become practical. Knowledge and preparation makes sense. The problem is that it demands of us city dwellers something that we are not all that used to. It expects us to know our neighbors at a level akin to some television comedy about country folk. In order to gain the sort of knowledge about our neighbors that would serve the needs of that elderly handicapped person, we would first have to intrude on her privacy to an extent that many of us would not feel comfortable doing. In addition, it involves the handicapped person giving up her own privacy, something she may feel equally uncomfortable about. 

In short, the RYLAN proposal requires that Los Angeles residents modify their social culture. We are being asked to become more gregarious in a way that does not automatically fit the city dweller. In addition (as one workshop participant explained), some people won't feel comfortable about telling their personal details (do I have water supplies, a generator, or personal defense items?) to a bunch of strangers. 

Equally to the point, imagine yourself going from door to door on your own block, asking people to listen to your pitch. This would be accepted by residents in some neighborhoods, but not so much in other places. We might compare the way that people used to do political canvassing and sell brushes by going from door to door in earlier decades. It is not really considered all that acceptable nowadays in the big city. We have developed a certain level of distrust about anybody but the Fedex person. 

The clue that RYLAN is going to be a hard row to hoe is revealed by the history of other such programs. In recent years, there have been similar approaches with various names ranging from Map Your Neighborhood to 5-Step to Jump Start. They are all basically the same idea -- some inspired volunteer is supposed to self-identify and then do the job of local organizing. I'll ask directly: How many of you who are reading this column would undertake this neighborhood organizing task in the near future, based merely on reading an internet site or picking up a pamphlet? Unless it's just about all of you, the RYLAN approach needs some serious tweaking from the start. 

In conversation with Carol Parks of the Emergency Management Department, I raised these issues. My suggestion is that the city's elected officials and city departments (particularly the EMD) begin the process of popularizing the idea of RYLAN. If the 4 million people of Los Angeles hear about local organizing from the mayor and city council members, they will be more likely to believe that you are legit when you come to their door. Better yet, we popularize the idea, then assign all those staffers who work in city council offices to make those door-to-door visits. 

Now for the most serious issue. To be functional in a disaster, RYLAN  depends on wide scale volunteer efforts by large numbers of people. The idea that a few neighborhood council participants (and a few more neighborhood watch participants) will supply the bodies to react to a disaster on the local level is questionable at best. Trying to recruit those people without first doing the groundwork that will convince them of the validity of their efforts is an unlikely goal. 

On the other hand, if we could first create the skeleton around which the volunteer organizations will flourish, then we could build something tangible. 

Let me suggest that the skeleton around which we will build a public disaster response is an organized system of local radio communications. We have the underpinnings. In California alone, there are more than a hundred thousand licensed amateur radio operators (hams). They talk to each other in clubs and on the air. They provide an advantage in developing a volunteer response team because many of them already engage in such activities. Organizations such as ARES (the Amateur Radio Emergency Service) have been around for the better part of a century. In addition, licensed radio operators have shown the technical interest and self discipline that will be most useful in the immediate aftermath of a big quake. 

The goal is fairly straightforward. In the first few minutes after a major quake, people (including the radio operators) will determine that they and their families are OK and that their immediate surroundings are not dangerous. We expect most people to engage in this behavior. 

But then, each radio operator who has signed up for disaster response will walk to the corner of his or her block. If there are enough radio operators, then additional organizers will head to locations such as city parks and plazas that represent the next level. In this way, the survivors of the big quake will have a method to communicate to the authorities regarding serious injuries, badly damaged buildings, or fires. 

In other words, the existence of an organized radio-based disaster response network will take some of the fear and stress out of being on your own at a moment when the police and fire department are tied up. 

The advantage of making use of the amateur radio operators is that we have a lot of them. Even if there isn't one on every single block, there are enough to provide access to communications within the distance of a few blocks. 

In addition to the ham radio operators, there is another radio service called FRS (family radio service) that does not require an FCC license. In areas where the ham operators are few and far between, we will be able to supplement our emergency communications by recruiting people who will own and operate FRS radios. 

The idea behind the disaster radio operation is that information about serious injuries and other critical needs (for example: lots of pe ople are gathering at the local park and there is no water supply) will go up the chain of command, beginning with the radio operator on the corner or in the park. From there, the message will be passed to the local fire station which will be used as the local command center, and if necessary, it will go all the way up to the Emergency Management Department center in downtown Los Angeles. 

The important thing about creating this disaster response communications structure is that it will provide an important signal to the public. They will begin to understand (if the mayor and the thousands of city employees keep telling them) that we have a disaster response plan, and that they are being asked to join it. Most of us won't join the radio communications effort, but we will know that the basic skeleton for our disaster preparedness has come into existence. We will know that our individual efforts to stockpile water and food and to learn survival skills will be part of an organized citywide effort. Our preparations will be effective and we won't be so severely on our own. 

Importantly, the prior existence of the disaster communications plan will induce people to join in efforts such as RYLAN because they will understand that it is not a vain effort. Put it this way: RYLAN may allow you to know about the elderly woman confined to the wheel chair. The existence of a radio communications system will allow you to put that information to use. The existence of a communications structure that will service the public in an emergency will be a powerful motivating principle that will make people realize that our city is serious about preparedness and that their participation will be useful both to themselves and to others.


(Bob Gelfand writes on science, culture, and politics for CityWatch. He can be reached at