A pandemic is a unique kind of public emergency.
Unlike the emergencies communities are used to preparing for – fires, floods, earthquakes – the recent pandemic hasn't undermined physical structures but social ones.
It's forced people into their homes and separated them from the institutions that usually make up daily life – school, work, civic activities and religious activities, said San Mateo County Health Officer Scott Morrow in a recent discussion with the county's Board of Supervisors.
People used to preparing for emergencies are learning that the usual practices aren't working how they expected under pandemic circumstances. And for a group in Menlo Park, MPC Ready, the coronavirus is creating new obstacles and opportunities to protect and connect the community.
Emergency readiness alphabet soup
For the uninitiated, there are a lot of acronyms that go into emergency readiness, said Sean Ballard, who serves as the chair of the Menlo Park Fire Protection District's volunteer Community Crisis Management board.
With the sponsorship of the fire district, the Community Crisis Management team is responsible for training, logistics and communication.
Each community in the fire protection district has its own volunteer emergency response organization, with Atherton's ADAPT program being the oldest and most established. Menlo Park's MPC Ready just started this year, and East Palo Alto has its own organization.
The "crown jewel" of the emergency readiness training the group offers is CERT, which stands for Community Emergency Response Team, according to Ballard. To be CERT-trained is to have a credential from the Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA). It's a lengthy training program and, once completed, those trained volunteers are ready to be called upon in case of disaster.
Traditionally, the disasters they prepare for are more along the lines of a major earthquake demolishing Highway 101 and Stanford University, and people couldn't get other emergency help. That's a more typical scenario when a CERT team would be activated, said co-chair Lynne Bramlett.
CERT training doesn't dive much into how to handle a pandemic, Ballard said. The training focuses on things like how to evaluate a building's safety, perform medical triage, do a light search and understand the chain of command in an emergency situation, he said.
"We train for a very specific type of disaster, not the type of disaster we're in," he said.
Menlo Park Fire Protection District Chief Harold Schapelhouman agreed. "We've never trained for a disaster like this because I don't think anyone could have conceived of this," he said.
A growing organization
Because Menlo Park's emergency readiness organization, MPC Ready, is so new, it has had to develop a network of volunteers virtually, using tools like email, Nextdoor and social media, Ballard said.
Still, since January, the organization has expanded to about 300 volunteers across Menlo Park, according to Bramlett.
One of the first steps of the process has been to subdivide Menlo Park into geographic areas where there are leaders assigned to each neighborhood who can communicate with residents and coordinate aid if needed.
At the most hyperlocal level, there are block coordinators, who focus on the eight to 20 residences nearest them, Bramlett said. They reach out to their neighbors, introduce themselves, prepare a letter, develop a neighborhood roster and find out what kind of help their neighbors need. Bramlett said she's aiming to get a block coordinator in every block in Menlo Park – but recruiting is hard work.
Above the block coordinator in the hierarchy is the neighborhood coordinator, to whom block captains report. And above the neighborhood coordinator is an area coordinator. All but one part of Menlo Park now has an area coordinator, Bramlett said.
MPC Ready hosts regular meetings for coordinators and puts out a newsletter. The organization also meets regularly with a representative of the city of Menlo Park – currently Mike Noce from the city's housing division.
In Menlo Park and Atherton, the responses have been different. Typically, the chain of command in emergency situations runs from the state governor down to police chiefs, who are authorized to decide how to use volunteers. Atherton's Police Chief, Steven McCulley, took formal action to "activate" the volunteers to check in on their neighbors, while Menlo Park's Chief Dave Bertini did not.
One concern, several sources said, is that many of the CERT-trained volunteers in the community are retirees or seniors, an age group that is more at-risk of developing complications from COVID-19.
But despite all of the jargon around whether a group is activated or not, what Atherton's ADAPT team and Menlo Park's MPC Ready teams are doing is essentially the same – asking volunteers to check in on their neighbors.
Unlike other disasters that run their course through a community quickly, the COVID-19 pandemic is slow-burning and ongoing.
And without clear directives for how volunteers used to hands-on helping can step up to fix the problem, adapting to the new task at hand – just being a good neighbor – may require a mind-shift.
"Folks want to be useful. They want to be helpful," Ballard said. "Nobody signed up for these trainings and certifications for their own sake."
Bramlett, who is still recruiting volunteers, said she's already seeing the positive impact of the program in her own life. "When I walk around my neighborhood ... I have connections I never would have had had I not gotten involved with this."
Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that Ballard is a board member of the Menlo Park Fire Protection District. He is chair of the district's volunteer Community Crisis Management board.