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By Julie Amato                        Follow East Palo Alto Today on
East Palo Alto Today           Facebook    Twitter         Blog
August 24, 2015                     
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Photo from an earthquake
Photo courtesy of the American Red Cross



What would you do if a major earthquake or flood hit East Palo Alto like the 4.8 earthquake that just occurred in Piedmont, CA on August 17?  Are you ready to take care of your family and help your neighbors?

Volunteers in Community Emergency Response Teams, or “CERT teams”, conducted an emergency preparedness exercise in East Palo Alto on April 17 of this year to practice responding to earthquakes like the one in Piedmont or to the more disastrous earthquake that hit the Napa Valley a year ago. 

If a similar emergency were to occur in East Palo Alto, CERT volunteers — local residents who are trained in basic disaster skills and organized into neighborhood teams — would work closely with professional responders to help ensure the safety of the community.

Fifty-three volunteers participated in the exercise, including five CERT teams.  The teams canvassed neighborhoods west of University Avenue, going door-to-door, talking to residents, and handing out informational materials, practicing what they would do during an actual emergency.  The program started and ended at St. Francis of Assisi Parish on Bay Road.

The exercise went very well, said CERT volunteer and Menlo Park resident Cynthia Bosworth.  The CERT teams, which included Spanish-speaking volunteers, were able to connect with a large number of people in a short period of time:  during a three-hour period, they reached over 2,100 households, and talked to an additional 100 passers-by.

The response from residents was positive, said Bosworth.  “Folks were very interested in how to prepare for an emergency.  There was lots of enthusiasm.”

The exercise was organized and led by CERT volunteers as part of the countywide Silver Dragon Emergency Exercise; similar events were held throughout San Mateo County on the same day.  This annual exercise tests the ability of the San Mateo County Health System to work with other emergency responders. 

In East Palo Alto, the Menlo Park Fire Protection District and the City of East Palo Alto also took part in the exercise, coordinating their emergency response procedures with the CERT volunteers and the county.  The police department took the lead for the city and had two representatives that took part in the event.  East Palo Alto City Councilmember Ruben Abrica participated in the event as well, joining one of the field teams.  Emily Pharr, the city’s community programs manager and emergency services coordinator, was also a participant.

“CERT volunteers managed the exercise on their own,” said Manuel Navarro, division chief with the Menlo Park Fire Protection District, which coordinates the local CERT program.  “I’m quite proud that they’re able to function well independently.” 

This self-sufficiency is important, Navarro said, because the fire district and other professional responders may not be able to respond quickly during a major disaster.  CERT volunteers located in the neighborhoods can send information to emergency operations centers.  “The eyes out there will be very, very valuable,” he said.  “If we have an earthquake in the middle of the day, we want to know what’s going on as quickly as possible.  It’s really vital.”

During the exercise, the CERT teams deployed a newly equipped command and communications trailer for the first time, and used ham radios to communicate with each other.  In addition to transmitting sound, the radios take and send photographs, which is important for sharing information about buildings and other infrastructure that might have been damaged in a disaster.  The volunteers also piloted the use of APRS, a ham radio technology that broadcasts the user’s location, allowing CERT volunteers at the command and communications trailer to track and locate volunteers in the field. 

East Palo Alto resident and CERT volunteer Dennis Parker was a participant in the Silver Dragon exercise.  Parker is a ham radio operator and used his skills to communicate between the command center and the teams in the field, tracking the teams and logging the number of informational packets that they handed out. 

Parker encourages East Palo Alto residents to prepare themselves to help their families and neighbors during a major disaster.  “We are very good with a mutual aid scenario,” he said, but he thinks it is important to understand that in the case of a real emergency, professional responders and volunteers from other communities may not be able to get to the city to help.  “The community needs to be able to make it on their own,” he said.  “It all comes down to neighbors helping neighbors.”

Parker recommends that community members take classes in first aid and CPR, and follow Red Cross guidelines for building an emergency kit, making a plan, and staying informed.  “If people were to do that, they’d be in pretty good shape,” Parker said.

According to Emily Pharr from the City of East Palo Alto, the city government continues to prepare itself to respond to real emergencies in the future.  “The city is committed to working with unifying organizations and businesses in cooperation with partnering government entities to strengthen our community’s ability to prepare for, respond to, and recover from any local disaster,” she said.  The city continues to work with the county and other partners to develop and revise the city’s disaster preparedness plan.  The city also has a training and education plan for staff and the community, Pharr added.

Volunteer CERT teams are an important part of our community’s emergency response system, and may very well be the first responders that you will see during a disaster.  The purpose of the CERT program is to help communities be self-sufficient for at least 72 hours during a major emergency.

The Menlo Park Fire Protection District has trained 900 CERT volunteers, including more than 130 from East Palo Alto, and can call on them for assistance when needed.  Volunteers are residents of the cities and neighborhoods located in the fire district, including East Palo Alto, Menlo Park, Atherton, and some unincorporated parts of San Mateo County. 

The fire district periodically trains new CERT volunteers, and also offers basic emergency preparedness classes to the public every month.

“What we’re trying to get across to individuals is that they have to be self-prepared,” said Navarro.  The chief sees self-reliance as an American tradition, and wants people to learn the skills they need to help themselves during a major emergency when public services may not be able to respond quickly.

“What happens if 911 can’t answer the phone?” Navarro said.  “We would like to provide that training to folks.  You need to volunteer to come forward.  Let us help you be prepared.”


Are you ready for an emergency?  Prepare yourself!

SMC Alert is San Mateo County’s community alert system.  Sign up to receive local emergency alerts via text message or e-mail at www.smcalert.info.

The American Red Cross has emergency preparedness guidelines and checklists at www.redcross.org/prepare.

The Menlo Park Fire Protection District offers free classes and trainings to help you prepare for emergencies like earthquakes, floods, power outages, and disease outbreaks.

  • Get Ready is a two-hour class about how to prepare yourself and your household for a major disaster.  Classes are offered every month. A class was held on June 9, 2015, at the East Palo Alto City Hall, from 6:00 to 8:00 pm.
  • Do you want to join a Community Emergency Response Team?  Trainings for future CERT volunteers are held every four to six months.  The courses last two and a half days and are divided into three sessions held over a two-week period.  The next training course will start on August 26, 2015.

Classes and trainings are open to all East Palo Alto and Menlo Park residents, as well as all other residents of the fire district.

For more information about these classes and trainings, and to sign up to attend one, contact Carole Parker, CERT coordinator for the Menlo Park Fire Protection District, at (650) 688-8415, or visit the CERT page on the MPFD’s website: www.menlofire.org.


Julie Amato is a regular contributor to East Palo Alto Today. She can be reached by email at epatoday@epatoday.org