Showing posts with label Emergency Management. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Emergency Management. Show all posts

Friday, January 13, 2012

Emergencies in LA: Most Vulnerable Angelenos at Risk

CityWatch, Jan 13, 2012
Vol 10 Issue 4

RETHINKING LA - The fastest growing demographic group in America is senior citizens, a simple fact that should be guiding the City of LA as it goes through the charade of emergency preparedness planning, but one that isn’t even part of the dialogue.

The essence of emergency preparedness is based on the notion that in a true emergency, the people of Los Angeles must be self-sufficient, prepared to survive for days without public safety support, health services, water & power, sanitation, access to fresh food, or streets that work.

LA’s Fire Department conducts Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) training that prepares community members for emergencies in a series of classes that progress from the basics of self-sufficiency to managing an evacuation shelter to advanced emergency medical skills.

The CERT training instills in individuals a hierarchy of emergency responses that is counterintuitive but essential, starting with protecting yourself, then protecting your loved ones, then protecting your neighbors. It may seem selfish to start with yourself but the message the instructors drill into the student’s heads is “You can’t help your loved ones and neighbors  if you allow yourself to become an immobilized or dead victim.”

The CERT training in self-sufficiency is an extremely powerful experience with applications on preparedness that resonate through other non-emergency scenarios, demonstrating at every turn that the most powerful tool we possess is the one between your ears.

It also serves to dramatize a painful oversight that has the potential to leave our largest demographic group vulnerable and on their own in the next major earthquake or fire or catastrophe that requires neighborhoods to evacuate in large numbers.

Quite simply, LA’s current emergency preparedness instructions for the seniors in our community, many of whom are already experiencing a lack of self-sufficiency, is “In the event of a serious disaster, everyone should be self-sufficient for at least three days without help or emergency services.”

It doesn’t take an expert in Gerontology to see the problem in this paradigm of emergency preparedness. Expecting a demographic group that is growing in numbers while experiencing a decrease in mobility and self-sufficiency in the best of times to suddenly become self-sufficient is simply civic malpractice.

Senior citizens currently represent 37% of our adult population and are projected to make up 45% by the year 2015. It’s estimated that men will outlive their ability to drive by 7 years, women by 10 years.

How then does the City of Los Angeles intend to guide this significantly sized and extremely vulnerable demographic group through the next emergency? By admonishing them to buy a “Go” bag and be prepared to evacuate on foot? By advising those who require assistance in the activities of daily living (ADL’s) such as grooming, dressing, going to the bathroom, and eating that they should be prepared to go several days on their own?

When Griffith Park was engulfed in fire and the adjacent Los Feliz neighborhood was evacuated, the surrounding streets and even the freeway was completely jammed with gridlock traffic. Residents walked out of the hillside community, some carrying a well fed lapcat or lapdog under one arm and a bag of prescription drugs under the other.

This is LA’s plan? Walk if you can, condolences if you can’t.

It was the CERT volunteers who set up the evacuation center at Marshall High School and provided services to those who were able to navigate the dark streets and find the solitary unlocked gate on a huge High School Campus. Other residents who were lucky enough to have friends and family near by, simply walked out of the neighborhood to prearranged pickup points and were whisked away to other neighborhoods.

But this scenario required the residents to self-mobilize and included no checks and balances to ensure that nobody was forgotten.

One would think that the City of LA would be better connected, that there would be some mechanism for identifying those who need assistance in an emergency and that there would be a plan in place for connecting with them.

In the summer of 1995, Chicago experienced a record heat wave that saw the city’s hard infrastructure buckle while the administration of city services simply collapsed, resulting in 739 excess deaths in one week.

At first glance, the explanation is simple, it was too hot and the most vulnerable died. But it wasn’t so simple.

In what was termed a “social autopsy,” researchers examined the factors that contributed to disproportionate numbers of casualties in some neighborhoods while equally physically vulnerable seniors in other neighborhoods survived the heat.

They discovered that it wasn’t the heat the killed 739 Chicago residents, it was isolation in the midst of a natural disaster.

Residents of communities with a strong social network were more likely to reach out to others when in crisis. Neighbors checked on each other and encouraged each other to move to cooling stations before it was too late.

Residents of communities with high mortality rates were made up of seniors who withdrew into their homes, who were less likely to answer a knock on the door, and who had no one to turn to when they were in crisis.

In other words, residents of neighborhoods with a strong “social ecology” survived while residents of neighborhoods that weren’t connected saw disproportionate casualties.

The City of LA has had over a decade to look at the Chicago experience and to evaluate LA’s emergency preparedness plan in the context of “connected communities” and the needs of our largest and most vulnerable constituent group and yet, where’s LA’s plan?

Well connected healthy communities are not only more likely to survive natural disasters but they also experience a reduction in crime and gang activity.

This was recently demonstrated when Mayor Villaraigosa and Police Chief Beck released the most recent crime data, touting the fact that crime rate was at the lowest that it's been since the 50's. The Mayor simply said it was "mind-boggling" but the Chief explained that it was due to good police work and the ever increasing role of the community in public safety.

One would think that these results would prompt the City of LA to double down on its social services commitment but the Mayor and the LAPD seem committed to the continual militarization of the police force rather than to an increasing commitment to engaging the community in the process.

This systemic dismissal of the importance of strong connected communities is evident as the LAPD moves forward with a plan to turn the old Rampart station into a SWAT station rather than fulfilling the wishes of the neighbors who envision a community center.

As for the seniors, they vote in greater numbers than any other age group yet they are forgotten during LA’s annual budget melee, victims of a Mayor and City Council that lacks the political will to commit basic resources to the city’s most vulnerable residents.

“Soft” health and social support services are delegated and redelegated, often falling on the shoulders of those who are ill-equipped or unwilling to accept responsibility. Through it all, it is the work of non-profit groups such as the Assistance League that creates the safety net and holds it together.

In times of calm, on any given day, LA’s police and fire departments respond to multiple calls from seniors who then receive transportation, emergency primary medical care, connection to social services, and safety support. times of disaster, the LAPD and the LAFD will be completely focused on the larger crisis and unable to respond to individual calls from residents who are limited in capabilities and mobility.

Watching Mayor Villaraigosa at the podium again, extolling the benefits of emergency preparedness, is to watch a demonstration in complete disconnect from reality.

Villaraigosa’s plan is to talk about preparedness while completely abdicating on his responsibility to implement a plan for connectivity, one that will take root now, not when it’s too late to do anything.

Dying young is a tragedy, but it pales in comparison to the real tragedy which is growing old in a city that takes you for granted and doesn’t have a plan for you in case of an emergency.

Seniors tend to live in one of five different housing arrangements, independently at their own home, in a retirement community with some support, at home but with some support, in an assisted living facility, and in a nursing home where physical and mental needs can be met.

If Villaraigosa is serious about emergency preparedness, he will produce five plans for LA’s senior community, demonstrating a commitment to connectivity that will ensure the survival of our most vulnerable yet significant age group.

If he can’t handle the task, it’s up to those of us who are willing and able. After all, we’ll all be there soon.

(Stephen Box is a grassroots advocate and writes for CityWatch. He can be reached at:

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.)