Emergency preparedness: Learning from Mill Valley?


Portola Valley and Mill Valley: two valleys, two urban forests, two areas of geologic instability, two communities isolated from outside help in the event of a regional emergency and thus keenly aware of the imperative to look after themselves for some time.

It made sense to Portola Valley Town Councilman Steve Toben to invite two of Mill Valley's emergency coordinators to give their local counterparts and the council a look at that city's multi-faceted effort to foster community awareness.

The presentation included a polished YouTube video. "It looks like Mill Valley has done some serious work on evacuation planning," Mr. Toben told the Almanac. "I just thought it would be beneficial to cross-fertilize with them. They live in a part of the world that has similar features to where we live."

One big difference: Mill Valley conducts a full-dress evacuation drill every year, picking a different neighborhood each year and including physical movement of residents and animals and major participation from its own police and fire departments, said Tiana Wimmer, chair of the Mill Valley Emergency Preparedness Commission.

The independently funded Woodside Fire Protection District serves Portola Valley plus Woodside, Los Trancos Woods, Vista Verde and Ladera, all of which also contract for police services from the independently funded county Sheriff's Office.

Filling the gap is the Community Emergency Response Preparedness Program (CERPP), a group of volunteers with 25 neighborhood divisions that cover the fire district.

"Neither CERPP nor the town have ever done an evacuation exercise, at least during my (eight years) on the council," Mr. Toben said.

"I envy Mill Valley where they have direct control and need only coordinate with the county. We have to coordinate with five separate entities," Mayor Ted Driscoll said in an email.

Local drills

Portola Valley has had maybe three or four significant drills in the last 10 years, and the Woodside fire district participates in regular evacuation drills at The Sequoias retirement community, district Chief Dan Ghiorso told the Almanac.

The district has begun a year-long project to create evacuation plans for all district residents, Chief Ghiorso said. When the plans are complete, CERPP will be asked to conduct regular evacuation drills.

Asked about local drills, Ray Rothrock of Portola Valley's seven-member Emergency Preparedness Committee said that CERPP engages in regular inter-division radio checks about six times a year and, at least once a year, an elaborate simulation involving firefighters and, in varying degrees, every CERPP division. "It's non-trivial," he said.

A town-initiated drill is scheduled for Aug. 31, Mr. Toben said.

The fire district's new evacuation plans will start with areas that have the most challenging ingress and egress, Woodside Town Manager Susan George said in an email. Ms. George is on CERPP's board of directors.

The first line of defense in Woodside, a town characterized by large gated lots rather than neighborhoods, is often homeowners' associations, Ms. George said. "The town does coordinate with CERPP (in) its twice-annual emergency drills, and we open up our Emergency Operations Center and activate our radios for these exercises," she said.

Woodside has a three-person Public Safety Committee that "is not charged with emergency preparedness responsibility," she added.

Fire district role

In Mill Valley, a fire department battalion chief spends between 10 percent and 20 percent of his time interacting with a county-wide equivalent of CERPP, Ms. Wimmer said.

"I wonder what type of staffing (Mill Valley Fire) has," Chief Ghiorso asked when given this statistic. "We're already overworked. There's no way I could have a battalion chief do that."

During drills in Mill Valley, where the typical parcel is a quarter acre, residents evacuate by walking, usually less than a mile to an elementary school/evacuation center.

A pedestrian evacuation in the Woodside fire district? "I would not want that," Chief Ghiorso said. "You're putting yourself at huge risk. It's just too far away (to safety)."

If a fire has advanced to the point where it's a risk to be outside, residents would be asked to shelter in place, he said, recalling a Southern California specter of people fleeing a wildfire with boxes in their arms.

Asked to estimate how many Mill Valley residents are prepared for a disaster, Ms. Wimmer put it at about 10 percent, based on attendance at readiness classes and sales of emergency kits. She itemized the program's weaknesses. First on the list: resident apathy, denial, fatalism and a sense of entitlement.

The recent earthquake and tsunami in Japan had a stimulating effect. "After Japan, our "Get Ready" classes were standing room only," she said.

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