Category Archives: Stories
Stories from and about people and places we’ve experienced. The lessons of others.
We asked members of our San Francisco Emergency Management team to practice what they preach: Talk to your family and friends about preparedness. Over the Thanksgiving holiday they did. Here is one story:
My oldest sister lives overseas with her husband and two daughters. Understandably they get homesick during this time of year. On Facebook, she posted about all things she misses about home and reminded me about a time when I thought I was too cool to smile in those family photos around the dinner table or in front of the Christmas tree.
Today when I look back at those photos I smile. Yes, seeing that scowling young punk is funny but mostly I remember the good times shared with family and friends. Decorating the tree after Thanksgiving, Simbang Gabi (a Filipino Christmas Eve all-nighter), and the big New Year’s Eve Party at my parent’s house are just some the traditions we shared together.
Last year, we started a new tradition. On Thanksgiving, after we stuffed ourselves we sat around the table and reviewed our family emergency plans and talked about our emergency supplies. Why not? Most of the people that I would want to hear from or would want to hear from me in an emergency were all in the same room. My parents chose the neighborhood church as their emergency meeting spot, my other sister and her husband realized they needed supplies for the dogs, and my wife and I decided my brother-in-law in Ohio would be our out-of-area contact.
This year we continued the tradition and all realized that some of the food in our emergency stash was expired (whoops!). But that’s okay. That’s why we do it, so we can take care people we love. We even sent our emergency plans to my sister overseas so she could join in.
Our holiday talks take about thirty minutes and then it’s back to other long time traditions… like that second serving of food!
Our team created Vines (6 second videos) of their holiday talks. Thinking about doing the same with your family or friends? Visit www.sf72.org for conversation ideas. Want to share your experience? Use #holidaytalks and tag us (@SF72org on Twitter and Instagram and @SFDEM on Facebook).
In the past week, we honored three dispatchers with a combined 61 years of experience. We also honored 4 veteran dispatch supervisors with the Toni Hardley Award- named after a legendary woman who served as a mentor to many of San Francisco’s 9-1-1 professionals. Years of training and experience helped each of them but where does it all start?
Today we introduce the new school: 10 dispatch trainees in the early stages of their year long journey to be San Francisco Public Safety Dispatchers. The diverse class includes a native San Franciscan who finds challenge in referring to her neighborhood as police districts (D3, D4, ect.) rather than her beloved Mission. The class even includes a candidate that has previous dispatch experience.
The trainees are in week seven of their 12 week POST (Peace Officers and Standards Training) Academy and their lives have been filled with lectures, case studies, and tests. They’ve also had the opportunity to sit-along with veteran dispatchers as they answered emergency calls from the public or dispatched first responders to an incident. The candidates learn valuable lessons from the calm manner in which their experienced mentors extract information from the public. Their eyes try to keep up as 9-1-1 professionals move from monitor to monitor (as many as five) and quickly multi-task to relay information to police officers, fire fighters, or paramedics.
The new school is learning the well-established tools of the trade and is taking on new challenges as 9-1-1 evolves. Later in the year, San Francisco will transition to a new computer aided dispatch or CAD system. In addition to a new appearance and commands, the new CAD can dispatch specialized Fire Department units more efficiently. This new generation of dispatchers will likely tackle the challenge of implementing Next Generation 9-1-1 which includes allowing the 911 system to accept and handle advanced information from the public, including video, photos, and text messages.
Being a public safety dispatcher is a demanding job that is critical to San Francisco’s public safety. After completion of the POST Academy, the dispatch trainees will receive intense on-the-job training under the supervision of training dispatcher. This includes answering emergency calls from the public and the responsibility of dispatching first responders on the radio.
Does the new school have what it takes to join the ranks of our 9-1-1 professionals? Time will tell- but if they have the skills, judgment, and determination to keep the public and first responders safe then there’s a headset waiting for them.
San Francisco celebrates National Public Safety Telecommunicators Week to showcase the important lifesaving performed by our 9-1-1 professionals. Dispatchers act as the communications hub for emergency services, and must quickly assess situations and send appropriate help. San Francisco’s 9-1-1 Dispatchers manage more than 1.2 million emergency and non-emergency calls annually. For more information on 9-1-1 in San Francisco visit www.sfdem.org/911.
Today marks the third 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.
The last week in March 23-29 is National Tsunami Preparedness Week and San Francisco is hosting our annual tsunami preparedness walk. The SF Tsunami Walk begins on Saturday March 29 at 10:30 AM at the Marina Green (Marina & Scott). For more details visit www.sfdem.org/tsunamiwalk.
In addition to the Tsunami Walk, the San Francisco Department of Emergency Management is conducting a three-day (March 26-28) tsunami exercise to practice with City’s alert and warning procedures, response capabilities, and recovery operations in a tsunami.
For information on how can you become better prepared visit www.sf72.org.
When the next big disaster hits the Bay Area, will our first responders have the right equipment, training, information, and public warning systems in place? To make sure that we do, the Bay Area relies in part on an annual federal grant from U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) called the Urban Areas Security Initiative (UASI), to help prepare our region for a major disaster. While the grant is focused on terrorism, the planning, equipment, training, and exercises funded by the grant can be applied to most major disasters, from earthquakes to tsunamis to wildland fires to zombie apocalypse, as well as every day emergency response.
We make sure to stay in touch with our friends in Washington to let them know what we’ve accomplished with our UASI grant, and what our ongoing needs are. Last week, six emergency managers from around the Bay Area did just that, traveling to the nation’s capital to tell our story to DHS to Congress. Our group included Bay Area UASI General Manager Craig Dziedzic, DEM Policy and Legislation Assistant Amiee Alden, and partners from Oakland, Alameda County, Santa Clara County, and the Northern California Regional Intelligence Center (NCRIC).
Keeping in Touch
Our Bay Area emergency managers met with officials from DHS and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to discuss how our UASI grant has helped us get ready for the next disaster. We met with freshman Congressman Eric Swalwell (D-Dublin), and with staff for several members of the Bay Area congressional delegation, including Senator Dianne Feinstein, Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi, and Representatives Barbara Lee, Anna Eshoo, Zoe Lofgren, and Mike Honda, as well as staff for both the House and Senate Homeland Security Committees.
How Has the UASI Grant Helped the Bay Area?
- Interoperable Communications – We are over 50% complete with a project to upgrade the radios used by police, fire, and other first responders, enabling them to communicate with each other throughout the Bay Area.
- Training and Exercises – UASI funds the annual Urban Shield exercise, which trains 4,000 first responders from the Bay Area and across the country in scenarios like urban search and rescue. First Responders from Boston trained with Urban Shield, and credited this exercise with teaching them critical skills that made a difference during the April 2013 marathon bombing.
- Public Information and Warning – UASI funds AlertSF, which sends emails and texts to San Franciscans with critical information during emergencies – sign up at www.AlertSF.org.
- Cyber security – President Obama has made cyber security a top homeland security priority. More funding would help the NCRIC to catch more criminals who use cyber-crime to disrupt businesses, steal personal information, and cost our local economy.
Something’s Missing Here…
The Bay Area UASI includes 12 counties around and near the Bay Area. But when DHS decides how much money to allocate to the Bay Area each year, they only count 7 of those counties, leaving out Sonoma, Napa, Solano, Santa Cruz, and Monterey. DHS has determined that these counties are too small to count, under the grant guidelines. But we argue that these counties include critical resources, like Travis Airforce Base in Solano County, which may become a major hub for delivering resources to the Bay Area if a large disaster knocks out our local airports, as well as the Defense Language Institute in Monterey County, the premier Department of Defense facility that trains our military translators who serve overseas.
We were grateful to Congressman Swalwell for raising this issue the very next day with the new Secretary of Homeland Security, Jeh Johnson, at a hearing of the House Homeland Security Committee.
While SFDEM was visiting the TaRSIER 117 Operations Center an emergency call came in about a shooting in Taglibaran City. A call taker took the information from the caller and a radio dispatcher notified the Philippine National Police.
Startup life… It’s a lifestyle and a popular hashtag on Twitter or Instagram. It’s the hustle and the grind. The marathon hack-a-thons and the late night drinks where ideas are born. It’s developing the next product or service that’ll change all of our lives. In San Francisco, it drives our economy but there have been some unintended consequences as well.
Over here it’s different. In a two room building in the Bohol province of the Philippines they aren’t developing a new social network, e-commerce site, or dating service. The men and women of this startup don’t develop code or design products. Instead the scrappy staff that make up this startup are dispatchers, medics, and emergency managers and they are making TaRSIER 117 work with nothing more than sheer will. TaRSIER is short for Telephone and Radio System Integrated Emergency Response. 1-1-7 is the phone number Boholinos are encouraged to call when they have an emergency.
Alfonso is a proud Boholino and TaRSIER was his idea. Many years ago his father, Alfonso Sr., had a stroke so they jumped in a car and rushed him to the closest clinic. It took an hour and half…the damage was done. Bohol had ambulances, they had firefighters, and they had police officers but they weren’t coordinated. On top of that each had their own phone number and often that number was different from barangay to barangay (neighborhood to neighborhood). What was needed was central place in Bohol where aid and assistance could be coordinated effectively. Years later, Alfonso became the Provincial Administrator and in March 2011 TaRSIER 117 was launched with a staff of 8.
If TaRSIER was Alphonso’s idea, then Darwin and Mark are the key developers. Darwin was trained as a nurse, but had difficulties finding a nursing job in Bohol, so he worked for a customer call center. When he started at TaRSIER, he drew upon his background to develop the protocols and script his dispatchers use when people call. Mark is also a trained nurse and a former Philippine Red Cross volunteer. Mark uses his medical and Red Cross experience to train TaRSIER’s medical response and rescue teams. Together they are taking what they know and developing the lifesaving protocols, procedures and training for TaRSIER. If something isn’t working they learn from the experience and make adjustments. From what DEM could observe they are doing a phenomenal job with scarce resources and without formal training.
TaRSIER has grown to 47 people who staff and operate Bohol’s emergency operations center, emergency dispatch, and provide ambulance and rescue services. While they have grown with the support of Bohol’s governor, like any startup, they have had their challenges. Educating the public to call 1-1-7 has been an enormous task. TaRSIER averages 250 emergency calls per month for population of 1.2 million. By comparison, San Francisco’s 9-1-1 emergency dispatch center averages more than 3,000 calls per day for a similar population. It’s not because San Francisco has more accidents, fires, or crime. It’s because many people in Bohol in still prefer to seek out help on their own or call the police or fire department directly. If they do call, sometimes it’s for non-emergencies. TaRSIER staff cited examples of people calling to ask what the traffic is like. In other instances, the caller gets upset and asks the dispatcher why they are asking so many questions. DEM assured our counterparts that we also get similar calls.
Retention is another challenge for TaRSIER. Most of the team went to school to be nurses and have had a hard time finding a job in that field. As the staff gains experience and training, they often get offers for higher paying jobs as nurses or in more established emergency management departments in the Philippines. According to Alfonso, in the past year, 14 staff members have left TaRSIER for more lucrative or high profile opportunities.
Not all emergency management departments in the Philippines are startups. The National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council (NDRRMC) is the Philippine government’s version of our Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). During our visit to NDRRMC headquarters at Camp Aguinaldo, we found highly professional, knowledgeable, and experienced emergency managers. In addition to earthquakes, the Philippines must contend with 15 to 20 typhoons each season. While NDRRMC is nowhere near a startup, their focus has shifted from managing the response to reducing risk through preparedness.
The Philippines has invested time and resources in engaging the public through both digital and traditional social networks. Facebook is the primary method of digital social networking since it is what most Filipinos use. NDRRMC has also formed a public-private partnership with the country’s mobile providers and developed a smartphone app that provides useful emergency information that is set to launch in the summer of 2014.
The staff at the NDRRMC knows that government can’t be the only answer before, during, and after an emergency. They are investing time in local leadership at the barangay level. People everywhere, whether it is in the Philippines or San Francisco, are likely to listen to information if it is from friend, family member, or other trusted source. This is why the NDRRMC is enlisting church leaders, school teachers, and barangay captains to help Filipinos get more prepared.
Manila’s emergency management agency is in a state somewhere between TaRSIER and the NDRRMC. The Manila DDRMC (MDDRMC) has taken steps towards preparing for the hazards that may face the city’s 1.6 million inhabitants. MDDRMC is building a new combined emergency operations center and emergency dispatch center at Manila City Hall. The center will coordinate everyday emergency calls as well as respond during special event or disaster. DEM was impressed by MDDRMC’s due diligence in designing their combined center. Manila officials built a small demonstration facility and then required every hardware and software vendor to provide a proof of concept for their products before asking for bids. As a result, they could test equipment and software before purchasing them.
While TaRSIER, NDRRMC, and City of Manila are different stages of evolution and capability they were all put to the test in some way in the fall of 2013. DEM’s next post will focus on the response and recovery and lessons learned from the deadliest earthquake in the Philippines in 23 years and the strongest typhoon in recorded history.
The first two days of the Mabuhay Manila mission were all about encouraging trade and business. The delegation visited the Center for International Trade and Missions where we previewed Philippine-made products that you may one day see at Crate & Barrell or Whole Foods. Delegates also participated in forums with the Philippine Chamber of Commerce and Industry about doing business in Manila and San Francisco.
Naturally, as emergency managers, we had to find our own spin on things. We asked three things business leaders from Bay Area and Manila would share with customers about being prepared.
Dennis Biscocho, President, Bisocho Insurance Agency, Farmers Insurance
Dennis knows a thing or two about emergencies. He was on the ground with the Farmers Insurance Emergency Response team following the San Bruno gas explosion and fire.
- Have an emergency kit nearby and accessible.
- Have adequate coverage. Remember your homeowners or renters insurance doesn’t cover damage from an earthquake. In the Bay Area, you need earthquake insurance too.
- Safeguard the things that are important to you like documents, photos, or mementos.
Jason Yi Ming Han, Vice President of Business Development, Anada-USA
Jason specializes in travel and you’ll find that preparing for a trip is similar to preparing for an emergency.
- Safeguard your documents. Keep your passport and other important travel documents in a safe place. A TIP FROM DEM: Upload your important documents whether for travel or life to the cloud.
- Prepare a safety card with your doctor’s information, important phone numbers, and meeting locations. Sounds like preparing an emergency plan to us!
- Know the local culture. Customs may be different in another country. Researching your destination allows you have a smoother trip. Knowing to drop, cover, and hold during an earthquake will help you too!
The Philippine Chamber of Commerce and Industry
The Philippine Chamber of Commerce and Industry is enthusiastic about helping Filipinos in a disaster. Here are three things the private sector in the Philippines can do.
- Provide education and engagement. The chamber can educate their members and customers about how to prepare for an emergency. The PCCI is considering forming a private sector disaster coordinating council to help Filipinos.
- Businesses can help with response and relief. Private industry has the logistical capability and systems in place to deliver and distribute much needed supplies.
- PCCI can help the Philippines recover and get back on its feet. Their members have the capital and resources to invest and help Filipinos get back to normal.
Our team enjoyed meeting with business leaders in the Philippines. Soon, the focus of our mission shifts to the business of emergency management. Beginning Thursday, the San Francisco Department of Emergency Management will spend our time in Philippines meeting with Filipino emergency managers, first responders, and local authorities involved with the Bohol Earthquake and Typhoon Yolanda relief and recovery efforts.
Two years ago today the most powerful known earthquake ever to have hit Japan, and the fifth most powerful earthquake in the world since modern record-keeping began in 1900 occurred. The earthquake triggered a powerful tsunami, which reached the California coast.
The tsunami resulted in a Tsunami Warning for San Francisco, and in response, the San Francisco Department of Emergency Management (DEM) partially activated our city’s Emergency Operations Center (EOC). Two years ago the EOC was buzzing with teams representing a variety of response agencies and organizations as we worked together to prepare for the waves reaching the shore. One activity of primary importance was making sure those who live and work in San Francisco knew about the tsunami warning and what to do.
DEM used every tool in its tool chest to inform the public of the tsunami warning. These tools included social media (@sf_emergency and DEM’s Facebook page); traditional media with DEM Deputy Director Rob Dudgeon giving many interviews with the press, which aired on local news stations frequently through the day; and, we issued warnings and alerts on our text and email notification system, AlertSF.
DEM urges anyone who lives and works in San Francisco and who has not yet registered for AlertSF, to commemorate this second anniversary of the Tohoku Earthquake and Tsunami, which posed an incontrovertible risk to San Francisco, by registering. This system is the most reliable of our tools as we cannot guarantee social networks won’t be overloaded and when/if the press will report through radio and television networks.
As we look back two years ago today, we offer a DEM Blog from the archives commemorating the first year anniversary. As time always passes, for us at DEM the sentiment does not.
The flag stands as a sentinel over a landscape strangely desolate. This is not the neighborhood I remember. Several years ago, a preverbal lifetime in fact, I lived within feet of the Mountain Shadows community – the neighborhood destroyed in the wake of the Waldo Canyon Fire.
Upon a recent trip back to Colorado, I asked my family to take a detour through the community ravaged by the wildfire. Days after containment the smell of acrid smoke lingered in the air and the devastation was gut-wrenching.
Disasters are indiscriminate, yet they do not always take everything in their path. Some homes are left untouched, while neighboring properties are razed to the ground. There is no rhyme and no reason to what is left. This is the first lesson of all disasters. The impact of the Waldo Canyon Fire was no exception to the rule.
As we continued our drive, the clouds moved in and I was struck with dread – this community which has already been through far more than most, will experience yet another hazard before the summer is through. Thunderstorms are par for the course throughout the Colorado summer and without vegetation the rainwater has no where to go, but downhill, directly into the impacted neighborhood.
Disasters rarely come alone. Wildfires are often followed by risks of flooding. Earthquakes can be following by risks of fire or at the very least a few days without electricity and running water. This is the second lesson of all disasters.
Knowing this, the risks and the rewards of their community, neighbors were out in force inspecting, cleaning, clearing and rebuilding their lives.
Preparedness is a cultural value. So is resilience. Whether we live here in San Francisco or in another community, we prepare because we want to build our lives there, even after a disaster. We anchor ourselves in a community in the hopes of coming back stronger and smarter than before. That is the essence of resilience.
Each of us, like the flag on the mountain, stand as a sentinel, guiding, guarding, protecting and preserving our community because it is our home.
Alicia D. Johnson is the Resilience and Recovery Manager at SFDEM. She is a strong advocate for innovation in disaster and human resilience. She can be reached on Twitter – @UrbanAreaAlicia.
Occasionally, staff members at San Francisco DEM have an opportunity to travel abroad. They frequently write back with their observations. The following is an observation from Assistant Deputy Director, Bijan Karimi, during his visit to Hanoi, Vietnam.
Dispatch 1 – Hanoi, Vietnam
When we say community, it carries an implied context of those around you or in your immediate area. However, in the world of emergency management community can take on a much broader meaning. Natural disasters cause billions of dollars of losses and deaths each year. Winter storms in North America are very similar to monsoon storms in the Asia Pacific region. Population migration to urban centers has increased the impact on urban centers and the need for community preparedness.
Vietnam is a socialist country, run from a central government. During our first few days of the exchange we met with Ministry officials in Hanoi, committee members, NGO representatives and to discuss the challenges they face encouraging community preparation, government coordination and public private partnerships. As in the US, government, community and private sector are the three pillars that must work together to create a resilient community. Participants in all of our meetings were unanimous in their recognition of the importance of disaster preparedness. The ability to bounce back from an event as essential to encourage economic development and growth.
In 2007, the central government recognized the need to put disaster response decisions into the hands of prefecture leaders to speed response. They have also implemented a concept called ‘4-on-the-spot’ which requires management, people, logistics and supplies to coordinate during a disaster.
When you visit somewhere new it is only natural to look for similarities and differences to your own experience. These pictures capture a few of the things that came to mind.
Now that we have met with ministry heads we can move to Hai Phong (Seattle’s Sister City) and Ho Chi Min City (San Francisco’s Sister City) to talk in greater detail with local ministry representatives and community organizations to understand actual implementation issues and how future exchanges can help increase disaster preparedness.
- Sometimes it’s better not to know what you are eating until after you have eaten it.
- Maybe traffic signals aren’t totally necessary
- Don’t assume all street numbers are sequential
- A scooter can hold more than 4 people.
Bijan Karimi is the Assistant Deputy Director for SF DEM and is currently in Vietnam as part of a sister cities exchange through PeaceWinds America. Their focus is to discuss emergency management principles with their Vietnamese partners and explore ways they can learn from one another during future professional exchanges.