The Vanguard has a new home, please update your bookmarks to

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Emergency Preparedness, Emlen: "We were Fortunate"; Atria Has Serious Explaining to Do

On Tuesday night at the Davis City Council meeting, the city finally received a full report on the handling of the storm from early January along with its subsequent power outages.

In some ways, this report seems a bit late especially in light of the fact that a good portion of the storm season passed us by before the report was delivered. Moreover some of the events simply were not as fresh in our minds as they would have been a month ago. On the other hand, it did give the city council a chance to evaluate in a thorough and reasoned manner what went right and what went wrong in the city emergency prepared plan.

The discussion began with what I thought was a very stark and appalling admission by city manager Bill Emlen:
"When we left this a couple of weeks ago, we kind of acknowledged that we were fortunate in that the incident that we dealt with during those few days could have been something far more greater, but what it did do was provide an opportunity for us to really go back and look at our approach to these situations in our emergency preparedness in general. [Fire Chief] Rose [Conroy] and she's preached to us many, many times and I think we didn't always take her as seriously as we should because we haven't had to deal with this sort of thing all that often as we went through that we realized the benefits of thoroughly thinking out preparedness and so as we came together as a group, Rose put together an emergency response team and we went through the whole event and things that we need to do differently as well as things that we did do right."
There are two points that the city manager raises that I think bear scrutiny. First the acknowledgement that "we were fortunate." This is a key point I think a lot of people who were involved in the discussions immediately after the event failed to recognize. The complaint for the most part was not that we were in serious peril during this particular storm, or that it was for most of us anything more than simply an inconvenience. Rather it was an acknowledgement that in a real emergency, it did not seem were were ready. The city manager essentially acknowledges that complaint as valid.

Second and I think more problematic and to use the word again, appalling is the admission that Fire Chief Rose Conroy had been warning about preparedness in emergencies and that we, and I assume he means city staff, did not "always take her as seriously as we should." I am hoping he was being a bit flippant there, because he was not, that is very disturbing that the city was not taking heed warnings they were getting from the fire chief.

If we did not take emergency preparedness seriously enough before, we need to now. As was pointed out by all involved, this event really was about an electrical outage with some corresponding fallen trees. The roads held up well. There was no need for evacuations. There was no need to have to clear major thoroughfares for evacuation routes. Next time if this is a flood, a fire, or an earthquake, the problem could be far more serious.

Chief Conroy spent a good amount of time talking about what worked and did not work. I think it was a good and forthright discussion. This will focus mainly on what did not work but at the outset, I want to stress that a number of things worked well including public works and their ability to keep the streets clear and usable throughout this emergency.

A lot of the problems had to do with the failure of communications devices between the public and the city and the city and the public.

The 911 phone lines went down for 18 minutes--again they were fortunate that there were no major emergencies during that relatively short period of time, but that is a big concern in a larger emergency.

The internet was largely unreliable, it went down during from Friday morning until Saturday evening.

They did not utilize the AM Radio 1300 as they could have to provide key information to the public. This was a big area of focus by the council as radio is the easiest and most reliable means for getting emergency information during a storm.

A PG&E spokesperson spent time going through PG&Es response. People at the time were concerned with the length of time it took to restore power. Frankly I think that is difficult to evaluate and depends largely on how widespread and severe the outage was.

The worst problem was really lack of good information and updates. I think their spokesperson was forthright about that. The 800 number was not updated frequently enough an the internet was not properly utilized. Remember a lot of people had access to the internet in a variety of different ways in the age of wireless connections and internet phones. Many also were waiting elsewhere for when the power would be restored and having people drive unnecessarily to see if the power is back on presents its own hazards depending on the conditions at the time.

There is also the issue of the shelters. I am still unclear as to why there were not shelters on Friday night, particularly for elderly residents.

Chief Conroy acknowledged:
"Not one of our shelter locations had power during these events."
Clearly that is something that they need to plan for in the future. Obviously they cannot predict who will and who will not have power. But they can plan with emergency generators to have operational shelters in the event of a city-wide blackout.

Atria Covell Gardens

During the course of the presentation Chief Rose Conroy told the council:
"In the fire department, we contacted, we made as many contacts as possible over the phone, or by person going to that address, where large numbers of vulnerable populations live. Those included assisted living facilities and apartment complexes with large numbers of elderly."
To me that simply did not square with the litany of complaints offered up by residents at Atria Covell Gardens a few weeks ago during their demonstration.

At that time, residents had serious complaints about the impact of power outages, the most serious had to do with availability of oxygen for infirmed patients, another was seriously injured during a fall.

For most of us as I have said before, this was simply an inconvenient situation. I think Councilmember Don Saylor was exactly correct when he said that by Sunday he getting anxious and annoyed that the power was still out and he could not use his TV and computer. That's a convenience issue, not a safety issue.

That is not the case for seniors. So spoke with Chief Conroy after the agenda item had concluded. I am appalled (to use that word again) by what she told me.

She told that she had called the facility at least five times on Saturday morning to find out how the residents were doing, whether they need assistance. She was told that everything was fine. That the residents were having a party together and that things were going well and that there was no need for assistance. She told me that she personally called them multiple times throughout the day to insure everything was alright.

As we have discovered, this was not an accurate picture. She was not sure why residents did not call the fire department if there were problems--but there clearly were and the description given by those at Atria was completely inaccurate.

Frankly the city or someone with jurisdiction over this matter needs to investigate this incident and determine exactly what happened.

If it turns out that Atria was dishonest and put their residents in peril then the public needs to know about.

Again, I think we need to look more into this situation, but based on what the fire chief told me last night, I am very concerned.

Overall I think we learned valuable lessons. The fire chief told the council that only three people were injured during this event. The most serious was an individual who was hit by a tree that fell as they went from their house to their car. This underscores the fact that we ought to stay indoors as much as possible during such events.

The chief also mentioned that we need to plan to be self-sufficient for up to 72 hours during an emergency--that means being prepared with food, water, flashlights, batteries, and radio during that time frame.

Finally I share again the evaluation of the city manager--we were fortunate that this was not more serious. It is better always to be lucky rather than good, but this gives us a chance to rectify our weaknesses in a situation where mistakes turned out not to be fatal ones.

---Doug Paul Davis reporting