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Emergency preparedness courses double in attendance after fires

on October 26, 2017

Dena Gunning, the coordinator for the Oakland Fire Department’s emergency preparedness program, usually plans for 20 to 25 people to attend a training. Around 50 people registered for last Wednesday’s class.

“We have a full house tonight,” said Gunning as she carried in chairs and tried to squeeze them into a kindergarten classroom at the Redwood Heights Recreational Center. She placed a few chairs at the edge of the door. “This is a tight room,” she said scanning the room excitedly.

Communities of Oakland Respond to Emergencies, or CORE, is a three-part training course run by the fire department’s Emergency Management Services Division. After volunteers risked injury to help victims and firefighters following the 1989 Loma Prieta Earthquake, the staff of the emergency division developed the course to teach residents how to respond and prepare for disasters.

“Tonight, we’re talking about home and family preparedness,” said lead instructor Josh Kaplan about the first segment of the class. After CORE I, residents graduate to CORE II where they learn neighborhood preparedness, and then CORE III where they are certified as an Oakland Disaster Service Worker.

The October through December course schedule includes 14 classes. Gunning said most of them were full and that she had received nearly a dozen additional requests for classes in various Oakland neighborhoods—a high number for this time of year.

The reason for the spike? Gunning said it was most likely because of the fires burning through Sonoma and Napa, and recent hurricanes in other parts of the United States. “It usually doubles after an earthquake or fire,” she said about the rise in registration numbers. “Somebody knows somebody who has had to evacuate and they start to think, ‘What if I had to evacuate?’”

“As we’ve seen, when the big stuff comes, it’s overwhelming for everybody,” said Kaplan before the training.

Chris Brown, a local therapist, led the class Wednesday. For two and a half hours, Brown taught attendees how to make a family disaster plan, communicate during a disaster, turn off utilities and minimize hazards around the home. There were no breaks during the Wednesday evening PowerPoint presentation, but no one left early and nearly everyone took notes.

At one point during the class, Brown asked, “Who doesn’t have a landline?” Nearly everyone rose their hand. Brown shook his head. Every person needs one landline that plugs into the phone jack at home, he said. During a disaster, cell phone towers are overwhelmed by calls and usually don’t work. Another communication alternative is a two-way radio, he said. If a cell phone is the only option, he said, send a text.

Brown also recommended that residents take photographs of their homes and write down a list of items that they want to claim before the disaster. After a property is damaged, people will need to show insurance companies documentation of anything lost or broken. If there isn’t any written or physical evidence of the property, it’s more difficult to receive financial assistance.

A life-saving preparation tactic that Brown stressed was water storage. He said that everyone needs to store a seven to 10-day supply of water for each person in the home. People need two gallons of water per day, so for a family of two, they would need 14 to 20 gallons of bottled or tap water. Tap water needs to be stored in airtight containers.

Throughout the training, the audience asked questions from how to start a neighborhood watch group (“One person can start it,” said Brown), to what to do when you see a downed power line (stop wherever you are and retreat.)

The class went almost 30 minutes over, but most people stayed.

After the training, Brenda Payne said she signed up for the course because of all the disasters in the United States. “We know we need to prepare,” she said. Melbra Watts, a co-head of her neighborhood watch group, said that attending the training made her feel less powerless in the face of disasters.

But for some Oakland residents, the threat of natural disaster is heightened and the opportunity to attend or learn about emergency trainings are limited. “We want to get to people who don’t have much access,” said Gunning, mentioning groups like seniors or homeless people who are usually unable to attend trainings. To spread the word about CORE courses, she does outreach on social media, neighborhood apps like Nextdoor and through local organizations and nonprofits that serve vulnerable people.

She also partners with nonprofits to host individual CORE courses at their workplace or community center. For example, next Friday, October 27, Resilient Fruitvale is partnering with CORE for a “Neighbors Helping Neighbors” preparedness workshop at the Fruitvale Senior Center.

“With everything that’s going on, they want more information,” said Nalleli Albarran, program manager for the Fruitvale Senior Center, speaking by phone. Albarran said there has been more interest in the CORE training that the senior center hosts every couple of years than before the 2017 hurricanes, fires and earthquake. “My group of seniors keeps asking me, ‘When are we having the training?’” said Albarran.

Seniors are especially vulnerable to natural disasters, especially if they are homebound and live alone. Of the 25 victims of the 1991 Oakland wildfire, well over half were 51 years or older. According to the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office on Wednesday, of the 18 identified victims of the Sonoma wildfires, all but one was over the age of 57.

Not only are seniors vulnerable to natural disasters but also not as well prepared, according to a 2014 University of Iowa study. Only 34 percent of seniors had either read about disaster preparation or participated in a training program. The scientists concluded that “increasing age, physical disability, and lower educational attainment and income were independently and significantly associated with worse overall preparedness.”

Elenna Ruben Goodman, an Oakland resident who was at Wednesday’s training, had previously volunteered at a center for Sonoma and Napa wildfire evacuees. She was optimistic about people helping others during disasters. “People are amazing,” she said about her experience watching the volunteers help.

She also said that Oakland residents are much more heightened to the potential of disaster. At the end of Wednesday’s training, Goodman summed up why she thought so many people had turned out: “People living here are kind of freaked.”

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Photo by Basil D Soufi
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