Article Features Annemarie Conroy

Preparing Your City and Citizens for Disaster

Last year, as the nation witnessed the massive devastation along the Gulf Coast, cities everywhere were reminded of the importance of emergency planning. In a state that’s highly vulnerable to natural and manmade disasters, California cities should be particularly focused on emergency preparedness.

San Francisco is using innovative ways to become more prepared — for both the city and its residents.

Months before Hurricane Katrina, the city and county’s Office of Emergency Services and Homeland Security designed a new interactive website to help people learn about preparedness. Its URL,, emphasizes the fact that after a disaster, it may be at least three days before vital services are restored. Available in English, Spanish and Chinese, helps San Franciscans plan for emergencies such as earthquakes, fires, severe storms, power outages and acts of terrorism. The website provides step-by-step instructions on how to:

  • Put together a family emergency plan;
  • Build a disaster kit;
  • Get involved in training before a disaster occurs; and
  • Volunteer to help after a disaster.

Being Prepared is a Civic Duty

Reinforcing the preparedness message, San Francisco launched public education campaigns using ads on buses, bus shelters and street banners to encourage people to visit the website and get prepared.

The goal is to remind people that being prepared is everyone’s civic responsibility. If someone is fortunate enough to have survived a disaster, they should be able to take care of themselves. Emergency personnel will then be able to direct resources to those in greatest need of assistance.

Staff and city officials have received a tremendous amount of positive feedback on The number of visitors increased dramatically after Hurricane Katrina, and they’ve had a number of inquiries from other jurisdictions, including places as far away as Boston, that are interested in linking to or adapting it to their own community’s needs.

Recent disasters also underscored the need for help from neighboring cities and jurisdictions during a large-scale emergency. That’s why San Francisco is leading the development of a new Regional Emergency Response Plan, which brings together the three major Bay Area cities of Oakland, San Jose and San Francisco, along with the 10 counties in the region. It also includes state-level entities like the Governor’s Office of Emergency Services.

Using federal homeland security grants, the plan will take an inventory of all the necessary emergency resources that the city may need to call on — federal, state and local — and the mechanisms for their deployment. It will look at transportation, communication tools and plans to provide care and shelter on a regional level and create a regional recovery plan for the 90 days following a disaster.

Exercises Help Officials Stay in Good Preparedness Shape

San Francisco is also using homeland security grants to fund planning, training, equipment and exercises, which help improve its ability to respond to disasters. The city conducts monthly exercises at its Emergency Operations Center and larger scale exercises on a regular basis.

Recently, the city held tabletop and field exercises based on the London and Madrid transit bombings. The participants were emergency personnel and leaders from San Francisco and surrounding areas, including the mayor, key department heads, FBI, federal and state homeland security personnel, and the National Guard.

During the past year, the Office of Emergency Services and Homeland Security has been updating the city’s emergency response plans, focusing on care and shelter in response to a catastrophic earthquake or tsunami. For the first time in a decade, the city created a new Emergency Operations Plan that lays out how to respond to natural disasters, technological incidents and national security emergencies in or affecting the San Francisco Bay Area.

Given the lessons of 2005, personal preparedness is more important than ever. In a place prone to earthquakes, wildfires and other catastrophes, local governments need to work even harder to make sure their residents have the knowledge and tools they need to be prepared for a disaster.

This article appears in the February 2006 issue of Western City
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