Responding to disaster: how locals are preparing


Emergency-response preparedness classes start Sept. 26.


By Kate Daly | Special to the Almanac

Seeing the damage and death caused by hurricanes Harvey and Irma and the earthquakes in Mexico raises a question: What's happening with a local effort to equip residents to take care of themselves following a disaster?

The 20-year-old Citizens Emergency Response Preparedness Program serves the areas of Woodside, Portola Valley, Emerald Hills, Ladera, Los Trancos, Vista Verde and Skyline.

Known as CERPP, the program is experiencing "growing pains," said Chief Dan Ghiorso of the Woodside Fire Protection District.

The 32-square mile fire district was divided into 25 divisions with the idea that each neighborhood would have a division leader and block captains to help assess and coordinate assistance for victims in the wake of a large-scale disaster should emergency personnel not be readily available.

Worst-case scenarios leave people potentially isolated for weeks, so the model is based on people being prepared with enough supplies to be self-sufficient, and then if the need arises, getting extra help from their neighbors.

Chief Ghiorso said at least 20 of the 25 divisions have leadership, and about half of the 20 are running drills to educate and train residents. A handful of divisions are not active and still need leaders.

Vicki Coe is "a very active" leader, he said. She serves on Woodside's Emergency Preparedness Committee, whose goal is to get all CERPP divisions operational.

Dr. Coe, an anesthesiologist, said she is thrilled to have recruited Mark Dahlen to co-lead Division 21 (an area spanning Tripp, Partition, Patrol and Greer roads and their offshoots) because he is an Eagle Scout with search and rescue and ham radio experience.

She relied on him "to put together a list of what we need for an incident command center" at the Mounted Patrol of San Mateo County grounds, her division's designated gathering site.

One of CERPP's nine containers of supplies is located there. After hearing that CERPP containers at Skyline and Woodside High School had been broken into, Dr. Coe said she was pleased to find everything intact in the Mounted Patrol container last year.

The inventory found 80 portions of water dating back to 2006, 400 blankets, 88 cots and a chainsaw, but with no gas for it.

The leaders refreshed the water supply, and have asked the town to provide a tent. Dr. Coe is putting together a basic first-aid kit.

When the Division 21 co-leaders hosted a practice exercise at a home on Greer Road in August, they showed a dozen or so people how to use the divisions' CERPP radios and when.

The leaders divided the group into teams and had them take turns reading about different post-earthquake scenarios such as injured and/or trapped victims, fires, downed trees and leaking gas lines. Then they discussed what kind of help might be needed.

Words like "triage" and "perfusion" kept coming up, with the doctors, a veterinarian, an architect and an engineer in the group adding insights to what the division leaders already knew from taking a Community Emergency Response Training (CERT) course.

One of the first things Dr. Coe did to get her division going is to put CERPP information sheets in every neighbor's mailbox, asking residents to list everyone who lives on their properties, and other pertinent facts about expertise, medical needs, pet details, and resources, such as tractors and pool pumps. She got about a 60 percent response, and is hoping there will be a way soon to update the form online.

The website,, has information for all divisions. The fire district's Selena Brown acts as CERPP coordinator.

"Some divisions are more active than others," acknowledged Jeremy Dennis, Portola Valley's town manager who is on the CERPP's board of directors. "Portola Valley Ranch, for example, is exceptionally well organized."

Donnie Middleman lives in Portola Valley Ranch, chairs the homeowners' association's Emergency Preparedness Committee, and leads CERPP Division 4, which she said is "right on the San Andreas Fault."

"The Ranch is a very unusual place; we have a very high volunteer rate ... and a relatively high number (about 12 out of 200 households) with CERT training," she said.

"CERT training leaves you with the feeling you can do anything," she added. "Just last weekend we had a friend collapse and we knew just what to do."

Division 4 is divided into seven geographic areas run by team leaders who manage their own gathering points and supplies. They check the batteries on an annual basis, and urge everyone to participate in an earthquake drill every other year when they set up a command center by the pool.

Water is one of the most important concerns in a disaster, Ms. Middleman said. Something as simple as a portable water purifier, such as Lifestraw, could prove to be essential, she noted.

Fire Chief Ghiorso, who said the district has invested in special water-purification systems for its three fire stations, recalled the 2010 earthquake in Haiti. "It wasn't the earthquake, it was the contaminated water after the quake" that claimed so many lives, he said.

In addition to CERPP, another local resource is, which posts suggestions on what everyone should have on hand in case of an emergency: at least three days of water (one gallon per person per day is recommended), non-perishable food, clothes, shoes, blankets, a flashlight, a battery or hand crank radio, a manual can opener, fire extinguisher, first-aid kit, and if applicable, animal food and water all stored in a weather and critter-proof container in an accessible place.

Dr. Coe said that place could be close to a garage door or spread out in more than one location. She keeps her own supplies in a sturdy plastic container on wheels in an auxiliary building in her yard.

After spending so much time and energy on getting the area prepared for emergencies, Dr. Coe said: "Hopefully it won't ever be useful, but if nothing else, it makes neighbors meet neighbors."


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