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Volunteers Swell S.F.'s Emergency Response Teams
By Liz Highleyman
As my team of five rescuers slowly enters the darkened room, a man with blood streaming down his face rushes toward us begging for help. As our eyes adjust to the gloom, we come upon a choking man with a blackened face and a dazed woman who is unable to remember who or where she is. Off in a corner, a boy has a large nail protruding from his arm, and a woman lies on the floor, still and seemingly lifeless.
This is class six, in which fresh Neighborhood Emergency Response Team (NERT) trainees get the chance to put their newly acquired skills to the test.
Following last fall's terrorist attacks, emergency preparedness -- or the lack thereof -- was on many people's minds. The October Glen Park NERT training, the first to begin after Sept. 11, was one of the largest ever, only to be exceeded by the Pacific Heights class a month later, which graduated nearly 150 new trainees.
The NERT program was created by the San Francisco Fire Department (SFFD) after the 1989 Loma Prieta Earthquake, when it became apparent that city fire and emergency medical workers might not be able to handle all requests for help during a major disaster and would have to rely on trained citizen volunteers for assistance. The SFFD now estimates that it may take up to 72 hours before emergency crews can respond to everyone who needs help.
NERT training is designed to make residents self-sufficient during those first three days. NERT trainees are encouraged first to ensure the safety of themselves, their families, and their immediate neighbors. Then, those who wish to do so can report to neighborhood staging areas to assist with the wider rescue and recovery effort. (Noe Valley is part of Emergency Response District 6, and our local staging area is James Lick Middle School on Noe Street.) According to SFFD NERT Program Director Lieutenant Patricia Yuen, about 11,000 people have graduated from the program since its inception.
Although NERT began as an earthquake preparedness training, the skills learned in the program can be adapted to other types of emergency situations. Each 21/2-hour class is taught by a team of SFFD instructors. Trainees learn basic fire suppression skills, hazard mitigation, how to turn off gas and water, what to include in a home emergency kit, basic disaster medicine, and light search and rescue. The last of the six sessions pulls it all together, with each trainee getting a chance to extinguish a small fire, turn off a gas main, search a darkened room filled with obstacles, and practice medical triage skills -- assisted by a group of volunteer "moulage" victims, people made up to look like real casualties.
My own interest was emergency medicine. As a "first responder"-- a graduate of a course in advanced first aid -- I had previously received fairly extensive training, but NERT taught me how to deal with multiple casualty situations. In keeping with the NERT motto of "Do the most good for the most people," the goal of triage is not detailed medical intervention, but rather to determine who can best be helped by simple but potentially life-saving measures such as opening an airway or stopping bleeding.
All in all, the NERT program provides an excellent opportunity to learn basic survival and rescue skills, a chance to become familiar with the city's emergency response system and the people who make it work, and a great way to get to know your neighbors. Whether your motive is personal self-sufficiency or helping your community, you can't lose by volunteering for NERT.
The next Neighborhood Emergency Response Team training for residents of Noe Valley, the Castro, and Duboce Triangle will be held on six consecutive Mondays starting March 4. Classes are from 6:30 to 9 p.m. To sign up, call 558-3459 or visit www.nertnews.com.
City Steps Up Disaster Drills
In the aftermath of Sept. 11, neighborhood residents flocked to NERT trainings around the city. Meanwhile, police, fire, and Muni crews continued to hone their disaster preparedness skills.
In mid-October, Chinatown staged its annual earthquake drill. Although neighborhood drills like this take place throughout the city each October, this one was unique in that it featured the participation of San Francisco's first Red Cross Community Emergency Action Team. These teams come into play after a disaster to provide food, blankets, shelter, and other supportive services. Red Cross public relations volunteer coordinator Patricia Oliver, herself a member of Noe Valley NERT since 1992, said the agency hopes to establish similar action teams in other neighborhoods.
The following month, hundreds of Muni employees and community volunteers got together at 3 a.m. to ride subway trains and crawl through the tunnels as part of an evacuation drill to test Muni's emergency planning and response systems.
As the year drew to a close, the San Francisco Fire Department conducted its first multicasualty incident training, in the Presidio. Over the course of 15 days, every fire and paramedic battalion in the city practiced triage and evacuation of multiple volunteer victims, many from the NERT program and city EMT classes. The volunteers were made up by Ramon Mahon, SFFD's dedicated moulage artist, to simulate everything from minor cuts and scrapes to major abdominal wounds and severed limbs.
Many players -- from the fire and police departments, to the Mayor's Office of Emergency Services, to the Department of Public Health, to local hospitals and clinics, to community volunteer groups -- are now working together to make sure San Francisco's emergency response system functions effectively.
What You Can Do
More than in most cities, community groups in San Francisco play a key role in disaster preparedness. In the words of SFFD Assistant Deputy Chief Khairul Ali, "It's concerned citizens like you who will make a difference in a major emergency." No matter what your skills and interests, there are ways you can help.
You can become a member of your Neighborhood Emergency Response Team (NERT). The next NERT training for Noe Valley, the Castro, and Duboce Triangle will begin March 4. Classes will be held every Monday at 6:30 p.m. for six weeks (that's March 4, 11, 18, and 25, and April 1 and 8). The location is Room B2/3, South Tower, Davies Medical Center, on Castro near Duboce. Classes are free, and no previous experience is required.
For more details about the NERT program or to enroll in classes, call 558-3459 or visit www.nertnews.com. The NERT coordinator for Noe Valley is Maxine Fasulis, 641-5536. She also will be happy to give you the scoop.
Be a Victim
NERT classes always need volunteer "victims" for class six, where new trainees test their skills in responding to a lifelike emergency. The Potrero Hill Mission NERT holds its final session on Feb. 9, the Bernal Heights NERT on April 2, and the Noe Valley team on April 8.
The annual citywide disaster drill will take place on April 20 at Marina Middle School, and as always, volunteer moulage victims, people made up to look injured, are eagerly sought. The annual Noe Valley neighborhood drill will take place in October. "Victims" are periodically sought for other drills as well (often listed on the NERT News web site). "Victims" of all ages are needed to create realistic disaster scenarios, and this can be a fun way for kids to learn about disaster response.
Be a HAM
Once they have completed the basic six-week class, NERT graduates can take further training related to the city's Disaster Response Registry ("SuperNERT"), which assists people with disabilities in an emergency, or the Incident Command System (ICS), which is used to coordinate disaster response.
Those with a technical bent may be interested in HAM radio training. HAM operators can play a vital role in coordinating emergency response, especially if the phone system is down.
For links to these groups, check the NERT web site, www.nertnews.com.
Grab Your Bike
After a major disaster, many roads may not be usable by cars or trucks, and those with small, maneuverable vehicles can help in countless ways, from delivering supplies to ferrying rescuers and medics. Even before Sept. 11, the city's bicycle couriers started the Courier Disaster Response Team (www.it.isdangerous.com).
A similar program for motorcyclists, the Motorcycle Emergency Response Corps, was recently initiated by Noe Valley resident Tom Henning. Both bicyclists and motorcyclists will work with the fire department, the Mayor's Office of Emergency Services, and the NERT teams to carry out an effective disaster response. To find out about Henning's group, log on to www.mercurysf.org