Thursday, September 30, 2010

CityWatchLA - It's Not the Heat, It's the Disconnect!

CityWatch, Oct 1, 2010
Vol 8 Issue 78


This past Monday, the temperature in Los Angeles hit a record 113 degrees, prompting a press release from the City of LA's Emergency Management Department (EMD) directing the public to cooling stations set up in locations such as LA's Libraries. The next day, the EMD issued another press release, this time acknowledging their recent discovery that LA's libraries are now closed on Mondays.

There are a few elements of this scenario that demonstrate LA's lack of emergency preparedness and emergency responsiveness.

1) Emergencies don't work 9-5, Monday through Friday. The heat wave didn't sneak up on LA, in fact at 8 am on Saturday morning the participants at the LAPD's Community Policing Advisory Board (C-PAB) Summit were sweltering. Unable to find relief in the beautiful but unshaded open space of LAPD headquarters they found refuge in the new Deaton Hall where the limitations of the AC system were discovered.

The theme of the C-PAB Summit was emergency preparedness and featured Caltech's Dr. Lucy Jones and EMD's James Featherstone. In a wicked display of irony, the top brass of the EMD and the LAPD discussed emergency preparedness on Saturday and then went home, waiting until Monday to let the public know "It's hot, head for the libraries!" If only we were better connected and had the right information at the right time.

2) Emergencies involve everybody. Utilities collapse, streets buckle, the LAPD gets stretched thin, the Fire Department must contend with medical emergencies and heightened fire risks, priorities shift and the last people to know are the ones who need help the most.

This simple heat wave illustrates that the importance of our libraries, our parks, our schools, our open space, our neighborhood councils, our senior centers, and our public space.

Regardless of the emergency, all of the assets of LA are part of the emergency response system, from open space for staging areas to protected space for animals, to libraries and community centers for cooling stations or evacuation shelters, nothing is to be taken for granted. If only we were better connected and had a plan for the right facilities at the right time.

3) Emergencies are local, very local. In a real emergency people won't be downloading PDF's from EMD, they won't be shopping for supplies or rethinking the recent interdepartmental competition over emergency preparedness funding. They'll be yelling, using a whistle, listening to a radio and taking care of themselves, their families and their neighbors.

A real emergency doesn't respect bureaucracy and it hasn't been trained by the personnel department in time management, loss-prevention, or the hierarchy of municipal decision-making. To wait for City Hall to recognize an emergency is to court disaster. If only we were better connected and were prepared to take responsibility for our own lives.

Last year's Station Fire demonstrated the deficiencies in our current emergency preparedness system when it was unclear which department or authority was in charge. Inter-agency squabbling over responsibility left locals navigating the back roads in order to do what needed to be done, save lives and save property.

Two years ago, a series of bushfires in Victoria, Australia took the lives of 173 people. "Black Saturday" resulted in an inquiry that called into question the simple nature of authority and the process for communicating an evacuation alert. It got hot, it got windy, the fires started, people trusted a hesitant fire authority and lives were lost.

Fifteen years ago, a heat wave struck Chicago and 739 Chicagoans lost their live due to the heat. The Center for Disease Control (CDC) sent an investigator to Chicago to study the incident and the researcher reported "It's the heat!" He was wrong. It was hot all over but the deaths came in clusters, demonstrating the impact of social structure, access and mobility, isolation and connectivity.

Quite simply, it's not the nature of the emergency that puts Angelenos at risk, it's our ability to prevent or minimize the impact and it's our ability to respond and survive that makes all the difference.

1) The City of LA needs to integrate its emergency preparedness and emergency response strategies and accept that they must be in the DNA of every department. Chicago demonstrated that simple land use decisions had an impact on the survival rates in a heat wave, demonstrating that even the CRA is having an impact on LA's inability to weather the storm.

From the DWP to the Street Services to the Libraries to Rec & Parks to the LAPD to the LAFD, every department in Los Angeles plays a role but the fact that they are disconnected means that we'll be playing "Who's on first?" in the next emergency.

2) The City of LA needs to connect with the public now and there is no better mechanism for that outreach than the neighborhood councils. It was locals that went over the fences in the aftermath of the Chatsworth Train crash to take food to emergency service providers who worked around the clock to save lives. It was locals who used the back routes to evacuate the animals in the Station Fire while the "authorities" set up roadblocks that hindered an emergency response.

From Community Policing to CERT to Communications, the network must be in place now, not after an emergency has arrived, and the strategy for success must start with supporting the public, not interfering.

3) The City of LA needs to clearly communicate now the chain of command so that the people of LA never, ever again stand in the middle of an emergency and watch the Red Cross argue with CERT over funding or watch the LAPD argue with the County over jurisdiction. Those moments might be dramatic and entertaining on the big screen but they are the seeds of disaster when they take place on the streets of LA.

The record-setting heat of last week may have passed but in its wake is a reminder that we must be prepared, we must take responsibility, and we must get connected. As always, it's up to us.

(Stephen Box is a grassroots advocate and writes for CityWatch. He can be reached at: Disclosure: Box is also a candidate for 4th District Councilman.)

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