Author Archives: meganlstephenson

Beginner’s Guide to VOADs: Voluntary Organizations Active in Disasters

San Francisco has its very own Voluntary Organizations Active in Disasters (VOAD) group, but a lot of individuals and organizations don’t know what that means. We’ve summed up what that means for you and your community.

What’s a VOAD?

VOAD = Voluntary Organizations (like the Red Cross, Salvation Army, faith-based group, food bank, box store, etc.) acting because they want to help (not because they are legally bound to) Active (responding to requests from their community) in Disasters (like a flood, earthquake, storm, fire, etc.)

A VOAD is a coalition of nonprofits and businesses that meet the unmet needs of local, state, and federal emergency responders, communities, neighborhoods, and other organizations. They are basically a group of organizations that have access to either goods, services, or buildings that can support during an emergency in case the community has an urgent need.

How do they work?

VOADs are typically formed by organizations like a faith-based group, Salvation Army, or the American Red Cross because their community is at risk for a disaster. VOADs can be formed before, during, or after an emergency happens. Some VOADs have formal internal structures with an Executive Committee or Board, bylaws, and formal meeting structures, others meet on an ADHOC basis. VOADs can exist at the local level like the San Francisco VOAD, County, State (California has a Northern and Southern VOAD and they can be multistate), and a National VOAD.

VOADs organize in order to respond to emergencies and to communicate during emergencies the needs of the community. For example, in San Francisco during a large neighborhood fire, the local VOAD was requested by a shelter to help find more items of clothing for the survivors. It’s as simple as finding a need, and working with a partner organization to meet that need.

Will the VOAD come knocking on my door during an emergency?

VOADs are not first responders, they will not put out fires, respond to crime, or put themselves in harm’s way during an emergency. They typically begin working after the emergency has ended and the community needs to recover. These recovery efforts could look like cleaning up homes after a storm, providing emotional support or counseling, identifying food and clothing, managing donations and volunteers, delivering necessities to community members, or providing assistance with lost animals.

How can I join the local VOAD?

VOADs are open to all official organizations (private, public, NGOS, etc.), but sadly not to individuals. If you want to help out in an emergency, but are not affiliated with an organization with a response role, we highly recommend joining your local Community Emergency Response Teams (CERT or NERT in SF).

If you are part of an organization that could serve a response function to the community in a disaster it’s as easy as signing up here

and getting involved at the next VOAD meeting.

Where can I learn more?



5th Anniversary of Tohoku Earthquake and Tsunami

An inspiring story about hope found after a Tsunami.


Today marks the 5th anniversary of the Tohoku, Japan Earthquake and Tsunami. The earthquake was a magnitude 9.0 and was the most powerful known earthquake ever to have hit Japan. The earthquake triggered powerful tsunami waves that reached heights of up to 133 feet and traveled up to six miles inland.

Immediately after the earthquake, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Pacific Tsunami Warning Center and the West Coast and Alaska Tsunami Warning Center both issued tsunami warnings for Hawaii, the U.S. West Coast, Alaska and the island territories in the Pacific. A tsunami warning is the highest level of alert so DEM got to work, gathering in the early morning hours at our Emergency Operations Center and began issuing public alerts and warnings about the tsunami expected to hit the California coast line. Thankfully, the tsunami caused little damage. We were lucky.

While the tsunami generated by the Tohoku Earthquake which hit Hawaii and the West Coast caused relatively minor damage, it reminds us of the need to be aware of how tsunami alerts and warnings are issued. There are various alerting tools available, including the City’s Outdoor Public Warning siren system (Tuesday Noon Sirens); Wireless Emergency Alerts; and AlertSF, our text-based message system that delivers emergency information to mobile phones and other text-enabled devices, as well as email accounts. DEM also issues public alerts and warnings on Facebook and Twitter (@sf_emergency). In an emergency, the SF72 Crisis Map will also serve as San Francisco’s real-time information hub.  You’ll find official updates, reports from our partners, and crisis map to navigate city resources.

Originally created by Francis Zamora

Facebook Safety Check and Your Plan

Many people are seeing Facebook use the Safety Check button for the first time due to the recent Paris terrorist attacks. Normally reserved for natural disasters like 2011 Tokyo Tsunami and nuclear disaster and later after earthquakes in Afghanistan, Chile and Nepal as well as Tropical Cyclone Pam in the South Pacific and Typhoon Ruby in the Philippines, Facebook made the decision to use the notification system for a terrorist attack for the first time in history.

Although the tool is still only used for distinctly time sensitive large events that have been analyzed by Facebook staff for the scope, scale and impact, Facebook does not intend to use the app for ongoing crises like an epidemic or war, for example in the Middle East. We, at the San Francisco Department of Emergency Management, encourage everyone to use a variety of tools to notify the people in their emergency plans of their well being. This could be any combination of the following during an emergency:

  • Text message to friends and loved ones that you are safe
  • Phone calls to out of the area contacts (these people can then notify others)
  • Facebook or any other social media message stating your well being
  • Meeting at your designated meeting spot in person
  • Listing yourself at
  • Posting messages on a community board and any other methods you see people using!

The key here is really repetition, make sure you let people know in multiple ways, not just relying on social media.

But what if you are not safe? How do you tell Facebook that? Well, we of course want you to call 911 if you are not safe and/or if you need medical attention. SF Dept. of Emergency Management does not want you to rely on social media if you need immediate help. Facebook and other social media outlets are great ways to spread a message, but when it comes to serious emergency situations rely on 911.

This is a great time to test out your emergency plan by calling your out of state contact, checking numbers, meeting places, and information. To learn more and download your own plan visit:

Psychological First Aid and Responding to Victims

After attending an amazing training hosted in partnership with NERT and SFCARD’s own Susan Schmitz to train trainers on psychological first aid, our community partners were refocused on this vital skill that people from all backgrounds could greatly benefit from. Susan Schmitz answered some of our questions regarding pyschological first aid and her background.

  1. Can you tell us what Psychological First Aid is?

During a disaster, the psychological issues resulting from trauma and distress can be just as alarming as physical injuries. In addition, the effects may not be seen immediately and may become long lasting. The National Child Traumatic Stress Network and the US Department of Veterans Affairs, National Center for PTSD created a nationally recognized Psychological First Aid (PFA) model to offer an immediate intervention and attempt to minimize the long-term mental health impacts. Similar to medical first aid, PFA is a process for addressing immediate mental health needs. This evidenced informed approach teaches tools and techniques that can be applied by anyone to anyone after a disaster. It is intended to be used by all responders (professional and volunteer) and is the leading psychological intervention used by people without a clinical background.

  1. Where did you get the idea for doing psychological first aid training with NERT trainers?

I spent two years teaching SAFETY FUNCTION ACTION to first responders and public health employees throughout the state of Florida. This is a disaster behavioral health model developed by Dr. James Shultz, and, similar to PFA, is clinically informed and intended for everyone. Everywhere we went, the audience was eager to learn what to say to the survivors they would be working with following a disaster. It showed me that there are more disaster behavioral health options available than just PFA, and what it really impressed upon me, was that all first responders need this training. Therefore, it’s something about which I have continued to be passionate.

Luckily, while working at SF CARD, I had the opportunity to talk about this interest with Teri Dowling (SF DPH) and Erica Arteseros (SFFD – NERT). They too had wanted a mental health training for volunteer responders, and had been trying to find a way to get it. Together we decided to make this become a reality. SF DPH graciously funded SF CARD to create a PFA presentation and train the trainer training specifically tailored to NERT’s needs. Simultaneously, Dr. Elizabeth McMahon, private consultant and psychologist, was asked by a NERT volunteer to teach a disaster mental health training. This just emphasized that we were on the right track. Volunteers wanted this type of training! So, together Dr. McMahon and I set out to create a tailored NERT PFA model. Our final team included myself, Dr. McMahon, Erica Arteseros (SFFD NERT), Shea Baldez (SF CARD), and Teri Dowling (SF DPH).

  1. What resources did you use?

We utilized published resources, professional experience, and a NERT focus group to tailor PFA concepts to meet the needs of NERT volunteers. Some of those written references include:

  • National CERT psychological first aid (PFA) module
  • National Psychological First Aid manuals (general, nursing home staff, medical reserve corps)
  • American Red Cross psychological first aid training
  • State and county level disaster mental/behavioral/psychological health trainings

What we found while trying to apply national PFA Core Actions to NERT was that traditional PFA tools often focus on shelter or disaster service workers. This does not accurately apply to the experiences NERT volunteers (or first responders) will have during a disaster. Also, we received focus group feedback asking us to tailor our program even more to the needs of NERT volunteers. For example, include how to provide PFA during triage and focus on what volunteers could realistically do for survivors within their NERT roles. Ultimately, we created a PFA training that complements and adds to current PFA/disaster mental health best practices.

  1. What do students learn in this training?

The goals of the training are to:

  • Teach, model, and allow practice of culturally competent skills that can quickly and effectively be learned and applied.
  • Increase volunteer confidence and effectiveness in handling distressed teammates and community members.
  • Reduce risk of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder symptoms in volunteer responders and community members.

To do this we teach:

  • Self-Care before, during, and after activation
  • Psychological first aid skills
  • Connect and Direct in triage
  • Connect, Assess, and Direct outside of triage
  • How to manage specific reactions/situations
  1. Can you tell us where you got your passion for this topic?

I think my passion for disaster mental health stems a lot from personal experience. My family has survived two tornados and I’ve seen not only physical destruction, but also psychological resilience. Neighbors, family, friends, all come together to offer support. Usually people offer to help in tangible ways (cleaning, cooking, childcare), but what they’re also doing is helping survivors emotionally. Social support is something so powerful when dealing with a traumatic event and it’s something we often forget and overlook. Psychological First Aid, while providing tools and techniques is also, at its very basic level, reminding us how to be kind to others when they most need it. You don’t need to be a clinical psychologist to offer that kind of support, you just need a reminder of how this may look when times are stressful.

  1. What has the demand been like for this training? Are people interested? Do you think youth might be interested?

Demand is skyrocketing. We provided one NERT PFA Train the Trainer Training in SF and the class was full. SFFD is already looking for more funding so we can hold another one soon. The Human Services Agency, SFPD, SF DEM, and multiple nonprofit and faith based organizations are asking for more information on what PFA would look like in their agencies. SF CARD has provided a PFA training for residential care facilities staff (which is different from the NERT PFA model) and has added this to our roster of available trainings. In addition, Dr. McMahon and I provided a brief overview of what we have created at the Northern California CERT conference and found overwhelming interest. CERT teams from around the state are interested in bringing this to their teams and would like to see this model become incorporated with the National CERT training.

By Susan Schmitz

Want to learn more about NERT? Check them out online for free trainings in emergency preparedness.

Remembering the Napa Earthquake

Last August, we wrote a blog about the earthquake that happened in Napa the crumbled the facades of many historic buildings. Today we look back to see how far we’ve come since the 6.0-magnitude earthquake that struck at 3:20 am on Aug. 24, 2014. There will be a commemorative event today in Napa at Veterans park starting at 3:20 pm with speakers, music, and emergency preparedness information. For us in San Francisco, the San Francisco Department of Emergency Management reminds you that gathering your emergency supplies and updating your plans on the anniversary of an event like the Napa Earthquake is a great way to show your support for the people injured and killed during this tragic event.

“Napa Strong 6.0/365” will take place at Veterans Memorial Park in downtown Napa. The event, coordinated by the City of Napa, Napa County and the Napa Valley Unified School District will focus on progress in recovery from the quake and preparation for future emergencies.

Getting Zen about the Mill Valley Earthquake

Yes, yesterday’s earthquake was only a measly 3.3-magnitude that occurred 6.5 miles off the coast of Mill Valley, but thousands of people felt it, and they are still thinking about it.

Does a little appetizer earthquake like this mean the big one is coming?
Well sadly, we don’t know, and you should know that we don’t know. People at public events often approach us mentioning Karen Schulz’s chilling article on earthquakes “The Really Big One” and movies like San Andreas were a combination scientific evidence and a lot creativity make us think that every event is a pre-shock. With all of these sometimes true and mythical ideas floating around, we ask that you stay zen about it. What does zen mean when it comes to thinking about earthquakes?

Look past the illusion created by the scary yet fun Hollywood versions of earthquakes. Know the science and confront it head on. We live in an area prone to earthquakes large and small, they are what shape this beautiful space we live in, and tear it apart. Know that you can take precautions to protect yourself, your family, and your friends. You can do it today, one small step at a time. Start with something like water, then move to food, first aid kits, and flashlights. Accept that you cannot do it all at once and that the items will change and expire. This is part of the process of being prepared. Take a deep breath and let the fear roll away and look forward to how you can help your family and your community.