Southern California received another wakeup call last week, albeit a minor one, when the La Hambra earthquake rattled the LA basin. Immediately thereafter, the LAFD implemented their earthquake protocol, and began touring their first in areas via pre-designated routes to perform damage assessments.
I too live in earthquake country. The Pacific Northwest is due for a big one, and we had a slight taste of how bad it could be during the 2001 Nisqually earthquake. Only a couple of years prior I had reached out to the LAFD as part of an effort to update our emergency/disaster procedures. As a result, we modeled LAFD’s approach of sending crews out to perform “windshield surveys” of key facilities and infrastructure in their first due areas after the shaking is over. We created maps with routes and target assessment locations for each of our units, established response procedures and set up a communications protocol.
When the 2001 earthquake hit the south Puget Sound area, my training battalion chief was on the phone with a training chief from another department 90 miles south of us (much closer to the epicenter). As they were talking, the other chief said; “Stop! We’re having a major earthquake right now!” and hung up. My chief immediately stepped into my office, blurting out what he had just heard. Right then, my chair lurched. I bolted four steps to our adjacent dispatch center, threw open the door and blurted; “Tone out all our engines right now! Have them pull their rigs out of the station!” As the tones were going out our building began to rock and roll. The dispatcher’s eyes were the size of saucers as she said; “How the hell did you know?!!!!” As the rolling subsided, I left the room to find the on duty battalion chief, and made a smart ass remark, something along the lines of “being part horse”. As a result of dispatchers being dispatchers, the unanticipated subtle implications of my remark haunted me the rest of my career.
Anyway, I digress. Our crews dutifully drove their windshield routes, even though we thought the likelihood of local damage would be slight based on what we felt. However, the community psyche was rattled more than the buildings, and they found it very reassuring to see our crews out and about, touching base with staff at our schools, health care facilities and public works facilities.
Today, I believe we now have a superior tool to the windshield survey. I’m calling it the “SMindshield survey”. Rather than waiting for fire crews to pull themselves out from under their tables and desks, try to open their apparatus bay doors and get their rigs out on the street, emergency agencies now have the ability to almost instantly crowd source information via social media networks like Twitter to figure out where help is needed most. The LA Times wrote an excellent piece on the reliance and use of social media by the public after the earthquake.
Emergency managers and chiefs should read the article and think about how they can leverage this tool in improving their post-earthquake assessment capabilities. During an earthquake everyone will be sharing what they see, smell and hear. Emergency response agencies better be monitoring, communicating and engaging, at the same time the rigs are rolling on the streets.