Noe Valley Voice March 2003

Got the Jitters?
Try Calming Your Nerves with NERT Training

By Sharon Gillenwater

The beginning of February was marked by a flurry of small earthquakes, the loss of the space shuttle Columbia, threat of war in Iraq, clashes with nuclear-armed North Korea, and the raising of the terror level to orange, the second-highest in our nation's color-coded warning system. Crisis overload had many Noe Valley residents feeling as if they'd had one too many lattés at Martha & Bros.

"What's that horn!?" screeched one of the coffee shop's patrons, who was sitting on a 24th Street curb enjoying the midday winter sunshine when a distant siren sounded.

"Relax," said her companion. "That thing goes off every week like clockwork. It's just a test."

The warning siren, which has been tested every Tuesday at noon for years, has suddenly taken on a new resonance with city dwellers living on edge. The events of early February seemed to escalate the fear, agitation, and jitters to levels not seen since late 2001.

They also got some people wondering about the city's emergency-alert system. Lucien Canton is director of emergency services for the City and County of San Francisco and one of the most frequently interviewed public officials these days. He chuckles when asked about the siren.

"It does seem like people are noticing it more lately," he says. "The siren system goes back to the Cold War days and was designed to warn people of incoming bombings. Today we would use it to send a signal to people to turn on their radios or TVs for a message from the emergency-alert system. If the siren ever sounds continuously at any other time besides Tuesday at noon, it means you should turn on your radio or TV for information."

In addition to keeping informed in the event of a disaster or attack, citizens can prepare themselves to offer hands-on assistance to their families and neighbors. After the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, a group of Marina residents asked the San Francisco Fire Department to provide them with emergency training. In response to their request, the SFFD formed the Neighborhood Emergency Response Team (NERT) program, which trains and mobilizes city residents to help out in their own neighborhoods in the event of an emergency.

Since 1990, the NERT program has trained more than 11,000 city residents in emergency first aid and light search and rescue. While some residents opt for the free training so they can be self-sufficient in a disaster, others take the classes to hook up with their fellow citizens in a neighborhood emergency response team.

Noe Valley is fortunate enough to have one of NERT's most active participants as its team coordinator. Maxine Fasulis has been a NERT member for more than five years. She estimates that over the past decade, "a couple hundred" Noe Valley residents have been trained by the program. Born out of a need for more people who can respond quickly to an earthquake or other Level Three disaster, the training now includes a unit on terrorism and bioterrorism, she says.

In the event of an emergency, NERT members report to a predesignated staging area. (In Noe Valley, the team will congregate at James Lick Middle School's basketball courts at 25th and Castro streets.)

Once on location, they gather reports of various neighborhood incidents, such as fires, collapsed structures, and injuries. Working together, they prioritize the various incidents, strategize on how to respond, and mobilize volunteers as needed.

While Fasulis has participated in many NERT drills over the years, she has never had to respond to a real disaster. However, she says there have been incidents where Noe NERTS have used their training to respond to smaller-scale emergencies.

"One of our NERTS was on his way somewhere when he saw a small house fire," she says. "The Fire Department was called, but he was able to extinguish the fire before they arrived."

Despite all the time she has invested in NERT over the years, Fasulis hopes that her skills will never be needed. Still, she encourages everyone to take advantage of the free NERT training offered by the San Francisco Fire Department.

"You will benefit from some really valuable information," she says, "that might help you protect your home and family someday."

Be Prepared

The following information was compiled from the NERT Auxiliary web site. For additional information about emergency preparedness and the NERT program, visit

Your Emergency Checklist

* Store copies of important business/personal documents in a safe place.

* Identify an out-of-state contact person so family and friends can communicate with you in an emergency.

* Develop individual, family, and business emergency plans.

* Designate a meeting place for loved ones if you cannot meet at home.

* Give kids instructions about what to do if disaster strikes while they are at school.

* Designate a surrogate parent for your children if you are not able to pick them up and provide this information to your child's school.

* Learn how to shut off power, water, and gas, and do so only if necessary.

* Stockpile emergency supplies, including food, water, prescription drugs, a first-aid kit, battery-powered radio, and flashlight.

In the Event of an Emergency

* Turn off your utilities (gas, water), but only if you suspect a leak.

* Monitor the radio for emergency information and bulletins. Local emergency stations are KCBS 740-AM, KGO 810-AM, and KNBR 680-AM.

* Do not rush to the scene to volunteer. City emergency crews will establish volunteer reception sites, which will be announced over the radio.

How to Join NERT

Joining your Neighborhood Emergency Response Team (NERT) is one way you can help keep your community safe. NERT training, which is offered several times a year free of charge, will make you an important asset to your family and your community in the event of an emergency.

The NERT Training Program consists of six, three-hour class sessions, all taught by professional firefighters. San Franciscans are welcome to attend trainings anywhere in the city. Upcoming NERT trainings begin March 4 at the Miraloma Community Church in West Portal, March 15 at the Providence Church Gymnasium in Bayview/Hunters Point, and April 30 at California Pacific Medical Center ­ Davies Campus in the Castro.

There is no specific Noe Valley training scheduled at this time. However, Noe Valley NERT coordinator Maxine Fasulis says the Fire Department will arrange a special training if you have enough interested people and can provide the location, such as James Lick Middle School or the Noe Valley Ministry.

Preregistration is required for all NERT training courses. For more information, visit or call the San Francisco Fire Department at 415-558-3456.