Viewpoint - July 13, 2011

Editorial: Emergency response group needs fresh participants

Once upon a time on the southern end of the San Francisco Peninsula, a group of citizens from several well-to-do communities, deeply forested and apart from the major population centers, gathered to consider their collective fate. Life was fine, as it is in many places where people of good will gather. But as it is written, bad things can happen to good people.

Among the bad things to worry about, they put aside fear of blizzards and tornadoes, this being the Bay Area. But under them lay the notorious San Andreas fault and over them was a blue sky, cloudless for half the year because rain falls in the other half, if they're lucky. Earthquakes and wildfires were real threats.

So the citizens formed a volunteer task force to deal with these two threats in particular. Self-sufficiency was important. If something bad were to happen, they live at the end of the road, and in a regional disaster, they could be on their own for some time.

These citizens named their task force the Community Emergency Response Preparation Program, or CERPP. Over time, CERPP invested more than $100,000 in emergency supplies, including two-way radios, medical kits, blankets, cots, flashlights, all the stuff you'd want in an emergency. And they took care to renew the perishable items on a regular basis. They were a dedicated lot, these CERPP members.

As the years went by, CERPP improved its efficiency and its effectiveness: It subdivided into 25 neighborhood divisions that could talk to each other over radios; the members formed teams, chose leaders, ran drills and workshops and took on responsibilities such as learning CPR and first aid; they considered equestrians, of which there were many, and they learned to evacuate animals large and small; and they were blessed with more than 100 ham operators ready to tune in their highly sophisticated long-distance radios.

Today, CERPP members can look back with satisfaction on 13 years of self-starting volunteer activism in planning for an event that they hope never happens. What they need now, what they don't have, are enough fresh volunteers from Portola Valley, Woodside, Vista Verde, Ladera, Emerald Hills and the other communities served by the Woodside Fire Protection District. The old-timers are getting tired and new members have been hard to find, reliable sources say. The old-timers want to pass on what they know.

And that's not the whole story. Even the old-timers can be only so useful without comprehensive drills that involve everyone: the emergency preparedness committees, the town staffs, the residents at large, the firefighters and the sheriff's deputies.

If a warning were needed, it came to a Portola Valley Town Council meeting recently when volunteers from Mill Valley gave a detailed presentation on emergency preparedness done well — annual full-scale drills that include actual evacuation of many residents and their animals.

Not that CERPP is sitting around doing nothing. It isn't. There is at least one elaborate simulation a year and several radio-check exercises. And in Mill Valley, the logistics are simpler. Their CERPP covers all of Marin County, and Mill Valley has its own police and fire departments and help from neighboring departments to coordinate drills and train residents. An enviable situation, Portola Valley Mayor Ted Driscoll noted recently, given the general task of coordinating with agencies that have their own priorities and their own funding, and the lack of meaningful participation from agencies outside the Woodside fire district.

The fire district serves communities in which life is good. Will they be ready when something bad happens? When the day comes that CERPP has to spring into action — and that day is surely coming — will there be enough people on the ground who are well-trained, well-drilled and ready to go? That is the question for these communities.


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