Almanac

News - July 13, 2011

Emergency response: New crop of volunteers needed

by Dave Boyce

Portola Valley does not have a "deep bench" of residents ready to respond to a major emergency such as an earthquake or wildfire, Town Councilwoman Ann Wengert said in a May council meeting.

Ms. Wengert used the baseball analogy during an extended discussion of the viability of the 13-year-old Citizens Emergency Response Preparedness Program, or CERPP.

The volunteer group has 25 radio-connected divisions that encompass the entire Woodside Fire Protection District, which includes Portola Valley, Woodside and the nearby unincorporated communities such as Los Trancos Woods, Vista Verde, Ladera and Emerald Hills.

In a fire district of 16,500 residents, CERPP has between 700 and 1,000 trained volunteers, adding about 45 a year, spokeswoman Gaylynne Mann told the Almanac.

The group has $40,000 invested in 110 trauma kits that the volunteers assembled and keep fresh, and $70,000 in radios, including 110 for neighborhood use. There are ten containers of disaster-related goods — cots, blankets, flashlights, tools, etc. — distributed throughout the district, Ms. Mann said.

But original members make up a substantial part of the group and they're getting tired. New members are needed as well as division leaders, Ms. Mann said.

"Who wants to think about their house burning?" she said in considering the problems of recruiting new members. "It's not a topic that people really want to talk about. People are affluent and in an affluent community, people think that's what they pay tax dollars for, for (other) people to take care of them."

A common question in informational sessions: "How long will it take you to get to my house?" Ms. Mann said. "I can't tell you how many meetings I've been to where I hear that question."

What's likely to happen is triage, in which firefighters address burning houses as they encounter them, Ms. Mann said. "But you can't make people understand that."

"We're not asking them to come out and save the world. We're asking them to save themselves," she said in her plea for more volunteers. "I would be thrilled if we got half the fire protection district residents trained."

"CERPP is struggling a lot right now," said Angie Howard, the town manager in Portola Valley and a CERPP board member.

"We do have a problem with getting people involved enough to volunteer," said Woodside's Town Manager Susan George, also a CERPP board member.

Logistical problems

In a recent presentation to the Portola Valley council, Tiana Wimmer, who chairs the Mill Valley Emergency Preparedness Commission, said that about 10 percent of city residents are ready for an emergency, a situation attributed to apathy, denial, fatalism and a sense of entitlement.

As the presentation showed, Mill Valley conducts an annual full-dress drill in a different neighborhood each year. Residents and animals are evacuated with major participation from the city's police and fire departments — a seamless coordination hard to duplicate here with first responders employed by independent agencies.

Another difference: Mill Valley's volunteer preparedness team belongs to a county-wide group. In the annual drill, Mill Valley firefighters are joined by colleagues from nearby municipalities, the logic being that a city's firefighters may be far away when a real emergency strikes. One might say that Mill Valley has a deep bench.

Mr. Toben said recently that during his eight years on the Town Council, "neither CERPP nor the town have ever done an evacuation exercise."

Ms. Mann disagreed, citing a drill several years ago in which fire district residents were asked to gather at Canada College.

"I think (an evacuation) would be interesting and I don't think it would be that expensive," Ms. Howard said.

The Mill Valley fire chief put the cost at $5,500 to cover publicity and drinking water and lunch on the day of the exercise, Ms. Wimmer told the Almanac. That figure does not include overtime for police and firefighters, she said.

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