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October 29, 2007

Earthquake Preparedness: Disaster Plans Help Businesses Survive

Written by  Laury Masher
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Earthquakes are a continual feature of living in the Bay Area, according to Dr. Richard Andrews, deputy director for the Governor’s office of emergency services in Southern California.

Andrews, who said the Bay Area is dotted by faults, was one of 11 speakers who addressed more than 500 people at the San Francisco Bay Area Business, Government and Red Cross Disaster Conference held April 11 in San Mateo’s Dunfey Hotel.

Officials responsible for emergency procedures at Chevron, Bank of America, Safeway, Kaiser, Levi Strauss, Hewlett-Packard, Pacific Bell, Chlorox, Pacific Gas and Electric Company, the California State Automobile Association and other corporations gathered to discuss how prior planning can prevent deaths and reduce capital loss in a major earthquake.

“You can in fact impact your business, your own family and personal survival and your community by your behavior,” said Ed Bortugno, geologist for the Bay Area Earthquake Preparedness Project.

Mike McGroarty, battalion chief for the La Habra FireDepartment who assisted with rescue efforts following the Dec.7 earthquake in Soviet Armenia, said one reason “there was a whole lot of destruction” in Armenia was that people were ill-prepared to handle the magnitude of the emergency. McGroarty said Moscow residents were trained in earthquake preparedness, but people in outlying areas such as Leninakan, which was hardest hit in December, had no emergency training.

It can take professional rescuers 24-72 hours to organize and begin to look for live victims, but it can take longer to reach people living or working in the suburbs. For this reason, McGroarty said 85 percent of live victims were rescued by coworkers, neighbors, friends, family members or bystanders. When employees and citizens receive prior training, the odds of finding survivors and containing damage improve significantly.

In the San Francisco earthquake in 1906, damage increased exponentially as a result of fires that rifled through the city following the aftershocks. Part of adequate disaster response is knowing how to shut down gas and electrical operations that can become hazardous in emergency situations.

“Having a good fire extinguisher and knowing how to use it can be very valuable to your survival in an earthquake,” said Pete Ashen, director of emergency services for the Golden Gate Chapter of the American Red Cross. “We all know that in 1906 more damage was done by the fire than the quake.”

Ashen recommends that every business prepare an emergency plan and practice implementing its procedures prior to a disaster.

“If you haven’t thought out something fairly clearly before the earthquake when you are calm, it will never work,” Bortugno said.

A disaster plan should be readily accessible and in plain view, according to Bill Sambito, staff manager of emergency services for Pacific Bell in San Ramon. “It should be the first thing that falls off the shelf and hits us in an earthquake,” Sambito said.

"It’s not only important to know where it’s located, it’s also imperative to know what’s in it," said Judy Bell, of Disaster Survival Planning in Glendale. "When a major disaster strikes, there won’t be time to sit down and review the plan."

Bell, who helped restore a telephone network following the 5.9 Whittier Narrows Earthquake, said it is a natural reaction for people to want to evacuate their buildings during an earthquake. Even after tremors subside, many people refuse to return to their buildings until after building inspectors investigate the damage.
"If the damage in outlying areas is unknown, employees who can’t reach their families request to leave. Many of these people may be key to the recovery efforts," Bell said.

When an earthquake strikes, it’s important for a take-charge individual to know how to mobilize recovery efforts. It should be known who has special skills, such as cardiopulomonary resuscitation (CPR) and first aid, that can be used to assist the injured.

McGroarty recommends training as many employees as possible in CPR, first aid and rescue services. “The more proactive a business is with preparing for an emergency, the more quickly it is going to recover,”McGroarty said. “Those that are prepared will get back on their feet faster and lose revenues for a shorter period of time.”

Although based in Southern California, McGroarty travels throughout the state to teach classes and hold seminars in light search and rescue. Courses in CPR, first aid and earthquake preparedness are offered on a regular basis at five Bay Area Red Cross chapters, and the Red Cross Workplace Programs Division offers on-site instruction to businesses and industries interested in educating their employees.

In addition to the semi-annual Bay area Disaster Conference, which will be held again in October, the Red Cross in San Francisco maintains a disaster library that provides businesses with guidance in developing a disaster plan.


This article written by Laury Masher, Admn. E&S, American Red Cross.

This article adapted from Vol. 2, No. 3, p. 20.

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