Imagine that a magnitude-7.0 earthquake rocked the Bay Area, in the morning hours, and caused significant damage to the city of Napa.
Many of those involved in a Napa Valley Community Emergency Response Team would be at least somewhat prepared, given that they — roughly 40 green-vested people — gathered in Fuller Park on Saturday, in the misty rain and slowly falling autumn leaves, to drill through how they would carry out a rapid emergency response in a four-block area near the park in response to an earthquake.
The idea behind the exercise was a scenario in which the reverberations from a quake, with its epicenter in Oakland, have caused extensive damage and upended many of the fixtures of everyday life. Bridges and highways have essentially been shut down. More than 55,000 people are seeking shelter. And all local and regional emergency resources have been fully committed and tied up.
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That type of disaster scenario, in theory, is where CERT best comes in. The team was also assisted Saturday by members of the Napa Community Animal Response Team CART, which handled the animal response element of the exercise.
CERT and CART are volunteer organizations, with members trained in emergency preparedness and response. Napa Valley CERT holds regular courses on preparedness, which CART members are required to go through. Ken Arnold, lead instructor of the CERT program, has previously recommended that everybody get some level of emergency training because the experience would help people take care of themselves when a disaster strikes.
But the CERT and CART members present at the Saturday event are those who go beyond ensuring their own personal safety — though that remains their first priority, in part to not burden the wider emergency response — because they seek to assist first responders, filling in the areas those emergency workers wouldn’t be able to immediately reach in the overwhelming rush of a real catastrophe.
So, on Saturday, the combined volunteer efforts of CART, American Canyon CERT, Berryessa CERT and Napa CERT went into setting up a command post and teams — as well as radio communications — to rapidly assess theoretical earthquake damage in the neighborhood next to Fuller Park.
Powell Helmes, an American Canyon CERT trainer, gave a briefing on the exercise, noting that it represented a year’s worth of planning and training.
“We’re probably going to make mistakes, and this is where we want to make the mistakes,” he told the crowd.
Throughout the next few hours, teams of three to five members went out into specific areas, after being assigned by the operations team to analyze strategically placed orange traffic cones with green tags on them. The teams were meant to read those tags — which contained information connected to the emergency — and respond by radioing the information back to the command post. Each team had an amateur radio operator assigned to them, meant to operate as the team communicator.
“If it’s an immediate situation — fire, the road is damaged, if there’s water sploot — whatever the card says, if it’s an immediate action you’re going to make that call back to the command post, you will give that information, and we’ll make something happen,” Helmes said.
Additionally, the teams needed to respond to 17 animals — represented by a variety of stuffed toys CART brought along — in various situations, also represented on the tags.
“You may find in your incident sheet that the stuffed animal there doesn’t match the incident,” Claudia Sonder, president of CART, said. “That’s OK. So if you got a lizard, and it says Rottweiler, don’t worry about it — it’s a Rottweiler.”
Following the exercise, Napa Fire Capt. Erik Mortimore took questions and spoke to the crowd of participants. He said he was impressed with the organization displayed by the teams, and thought the drill was a good way to show how information gathering and prioritizing in a disaster scenario works.
“A lot of it's pretty simple stuff; it doesn’t have to be more complicated," Mortimore said. “We tend to complicate things. Then we get back to simple, and that’s what I want to know.”