Preparing for the worst | News | Almanac Online |


Preparing for the worst

Atherton emergency group trains, readies for disasters

It was a warm fall day nearly 30 years ago. Tom Prussing had just returned home from work at Stanford University and flipped on the TV to watch the San Francisco Giants compete in the World Series.

But the game would never begin. On Oct. 17, 1989, the 6.9 magnitude Loma Prieta Earthquake shook the Bay Area. Prussing, a former Army Reserve member and emergency medical technician who lives on the border of Menlo Park and Atherton, sprang into action. He directed neighbors to check on people up and down their blocks.

He drove to Stanford to stabilize its computers. When he returned home, he asked his neighbors to do a second sweep, this time finding three elderly neighbors stuck under a bed, in a closet and in a bathroom.

There was a blockwide barbecue, as neighbors watched on a portable TV as the Bay Bridge collapsed and San Francisco's Marina district blazed. There were 63 deaths, thousands of injuries and about $7 billion of property damage, according to the California Department of Conservation.

The original 1937 unreinforced Almendral Avenue fire station in Atherton was moderately damaged in that quake. No one was injured on his block, but the experience taught Prussing, 71, that people can't wait for local, state or national government agencies to step in during a crisis. Police and firefighters can't be everywhere at once during an emergency, so it's important for residents to prepare on their own, he said.

Prussing, now head of ADAPT (Atherton Disaster and Preparedness Team), said that day three decades ago inspired his passion for disaster preparedness. ADAPT members prepare for any given disaster so that they could serve as leaders in the Atherton community during an emergency.

Potential disasters on members' minds? Fire caused by tree overgrowth, an earthquake, or a windstorm, according to a survey of ADAPT members.

Then and now

Former Atherton resident Bob Jenkins and others created a program during the 1990s to prepare the town's residents for a major disaster, according to ADAPT. When Jenkins moved out of town, a group of residents formed ADAPT to continue disaster preparedness work.

ADAPT became a 501(c)(3) nonprofit during Scott Barnum's tenure as president, which began in 2008. The City Council set aside $8,500 in the 2019-20 town budget for ADAPT's drills, medical equipment, emergency assembly-point signage and more.

Now ADAPT hosts monthly meetings about emergency planning; disseminates emergency preparedness materials; coordinates with police; and presents emergency training and education sessions to residents. It has also established area coordinators in 14 subdivisions of the town. Atherton neighbors can be isolated from one another since it's a town with many gated homes, Prussing said. His goal is to break down those divisions and help form a sense of community.

"We (ADAPT) want to be a hub for education," he said.

In 2015, Prussing authored an emergency response protocol adopted by ADAPT and the town. Prussing, who became president of the group in 2016, is working on the latest version of this guide and expects to finish it by the end of the year, he said.

The group, which now has 169 active members, is establishing expert deployment teams to handle communications, search and rescue, recovery and traffic control, Prussing said. One team of medical doctors is working with the Atherton Police Department to step in for additional medical assistance to residents if there is an emergency.

"We're not professionals (as are police or firefighters), but we're training to be as competent," he said.

When disaster strikes, emergency responder resources may be "very limited, with potentially long response times," Police Chief Steven McCulley said in an email.

"ADAPT, through their training, Town-wide organization, and utilization of Emergency Assembly Points, will be a critical component of our disaster response plans," he said. "I would like to encourage more residents to become a member of ADAPT as a very tangible way to serve and assist your family and your neighbors."

The group also hosts emergency drills to prepare for potential disasters. It put together the first Atherton Community Emergency Drill in August 2016.

Prussing is readying for ADAPT's fourth annual community emergency drill from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Saturday, Sept. 7, in Atherton's Holbrook-Palmer Park.

Participants will gather for a briefing on the scope of a fictional disaster, then organize to carry out emergency missions that include triage; medical transport and treatment; traffic and crowd control; and a number of unexpected, challenging emergency scenarios, according to the group.

"I'm training them (ADAPT members) to be as resilient, responsive and capable as they can be," Prussing said.

Exercises like this can raise awareness about disasters and better prepare people for them, Prussing said. (About 53% of Bay Area residents have disaster readiness kits, according to a Public Policy Institute of California survey.)

Disaster scenarios

Atherton faces several challenges that could cause disasters, Prussing said.

In 2017, ADAPT surveyed members on top disaster risks to the town, he said. One of the top concerns among members was potential for a canopy fire, in which a fire jumps from tree to tree rather than traveling across the ground. Windstorms (winds strong enough to take down trees) and earthquakes are also of concern to members. Security threats (such as a home break-in), a gas explosion, an airplane crash, train derailment or a pandemic (an outbreak of a disease) also made members' list of concerns.

There are winding roads with tree canopy in the midst of power lines in some parts of town, Prussing said. If there's an earthquake, members are concerned that trees could hit PG&E power lines, causing a fire, he said. Downed trees could also block roads, making it hard to evacuate, he added.

Trees in town are more overgrown than they were 30 years ago, and this poses a greater threat of fires, Prussing said.

The town is in charge of tree management and evacuation routes, said Menlo Park Fire Protection District Chief Harold Schapelhouman in an email. The district has discussed both tree management and evacuation routes with town leaders, he said.

"I'm always concerned about sick and dead trees ... and certain types of trees are more flammable than others," Schapelhouman wrote. "A canopy wind-driven fire is always possible, [albeit a low probability."

While Atherton does have a lot of trees, Fire Marshal Jon Johnston told Mayor Bill Widmer that Atherton is not in a wildfire hazard area, Widmer said in an email. Wildfires could happen to the west of Atherton, but the town is buffered by Interstate 280, he said.

Widmer said he asked Johnston to provide input on the latest revision to the town's Heritage Tree Ordinance.

"The fire district does provide input every year to Atherton regarding building codes and will do so this year," he said. "Some of the updated requirements and recommendations will include lessons learned from the fires last year up north," he said, referring to the Carr Fire in Redding and the Camp Fire in Paradise in 2018. "Some could be class A roofing and roof vents which prevent embers getting into the attics."

Atherton is not in a Very High Hazard Wildland Urban Interface (WUI) zone, Johnston said in an email. However, the town borders one and is considered a "Community At Risk." West of Interstate 280 is WUI area, he said.

"Yes we have areas of concern that we address with weed abatement, coordination of evacuation routes with the town of Atherton and working to promote safe practices," he wrote in the email to The Almanac. "We are in the process of the next (California) Building and Fire Code cycle, of which we will consider with the Town Council and the Fire Board more proactive measures to ensure safety in building construction and landscape maintenance."

A recent San Mateo County Civil Grand Jury report warns residents of urban areas not to be complacent about wildfires since high winds can drive swarms of embers long distances and ignite vulnerable structures. The Crystal Springs reservoirs, San Andreas Lake and Interstate 280 could act as a firebreak and "slow the eastward progress of a fire towards San Francisco Bay." However, the report noted, wind-driven fires have produced embers that have jumped rivers and reservoirs in the past.

The report comes as towns in the urban/wildland interface, such as Portola Valley and Woodside, are working to find ways to prevent fires and prepare effective response plans.

The Woodside Fire Protection District recently received a $100,000 grant to remove underbrush and invasive plants in the 626-acre Teague Hill Open Space Preserve in Woodside for wildfire prevention.

A rich background

Prussing, who moved to the Midpeninsula in 1978, was born in San Francisco. He received a bachelor's degree in economics from Santa Clara University and served as an Army Reserve member while he earned his degree.

He's also is certified as an interfaith minister and mediator.

"I am fascinated by the spiritual and healing arts," he said. "I realized a lot of individuals who have been disqualified from their faith of origin (because they divorced or want to marry someone from outside of their religion) and have no spiritual way to connect."

Prussing has used the ministry degree to conduct wedding ceremonies between people of different religions in a way that is still spiritual.

He retired in 2015 from Stanford after 41 years in facility operations management. Since 1998 he was also the team leader, instructor and drill coordinator for the Stanford ITS CERT program. He conducted monthly reviews of disaster scenarios and directed a yearly building evacuation drill and a disaster response exercise.

In 1996, Prussing said, he helped to fortify the Stanford campus after rats found their way into the school's electrical system, shutting down power. The invasion halted internet access for thousands of users in the region, according to a 1996 San Francisco Chronicle article.

Prussing has always been drawn to disaster preparedness work, he said. "It's how I can give back to the community that's given me so much."

For more on ADAPT, go here.


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