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The Island comments: Following the fire

Submitted by on 1, April 30, 2009 – 5:50 am3 Comments

101-300x225The flames that conquered a dilapidated medical records depot last month shed light on an unsettling truth: Our city lacks the ability to quickly, fully and accurately inform us when a major disaster happens.

When city and air quality officials decided to issue a shelter-in-place advisory for residents a mile downwind of the fire, they opted to go door-to-door, instead of using the city’s telephone notification system. Fire Chief David Kapler told the City Council on April 7 that the department opted not to use the notification system because it is “old and slow.”

The system, CityWatch, can only complete 120 calls an hour. At that rate, it would take more than 10 days to alert every household in Alameda about a disaster and to let residents know what they need to do to protect themselves and their families.

The city also lacks a written policy that lays out the circumstances under which its notification system would be used.

The city waited 16 days to post information on its website answering questions about the health effects of smoke that drifted off the fire and the proper disposal of ash that residents halfway across the Island said they found in their yards – despite the urging of the Bay Area Air Quality Management District and concerned residents that they do so sooner.

The city’s risk manager, Darrell Handy, said the city “invested additional time to consult with representatives from various regulatory agencies, in addition to its own environmental expert … in order to provide additional information to the community on the City’s website.” That’s good. But the delay in getting that information to the public only intensified worries about the fire’s effects. And it gave the appearance that the city, which handled the fire response and owns the property the building sat on, cared more about covering itself legally than about the safety of its residents.

Handy said city staff are working to replace the Island’s outdated notification system with something that could essentially notify everyone in under an hour when the next disaster hits, and he said a written policy for its use will be put in place with it. That’s a great start.

But he also said he thinks the city handled the fire’s aftermath properly, and on this point, I think there are many who would disagree. I’d say there are lessons for the city to learn here. And I am hopeful they will do so, before the next disaster hits.

3 Comments »

  • Jon Spangler says:

    What happened to the Navy’s former medical records building at AP was serious and deserves attention, but it pales in comparison to how bad the next big earthquake will be, according to the US Geological Survey.

    On one hand, I sympathize with those who, like me, had ash drift down on them from the fire. But the upcoming 8.0 (Richter) quake will make the Loma Prieta quake of 1989 look like a veritable Sunday school picnic by comparison, and I am far more concerned with how ready Alameda is for that than I am about what was, *relatively speaking*, a small and benign fire at Alameda Point.

  • Liz Williams says:

    Thank you for this post, Michelle. I’m with you and your commenter, Jon: Alameda is completely unprepared to handle a major earthquake or disaster. Even worse, the city seems unable to *recognize* a disaster, which is why I’ve been hammering on them about the FISC fire. Alameda could have handled the FISC fire differently, and involved the EPA from the beginning, as other communities in identical situations have. That they did not take these steps with a fire that included an underground gas storage tank (which had been designated a superfund clean-up site by the EPA), or an asbestos-containing 50,000 square foot roof, still stuns me. The AFD’s performance on the FISC fire was the bigger disaster.

    • Thanks, Liz. Interesting note on that: Apparently, CityWatch was never actually intended to be an emergency notification system. APD Capt. Mike Noonan told the city council on Tuesday that the system was bought in 2000 for internal use, for stuff like SWAT callbacks (which I guess would explain why there's no policy for its use in an emergency). But they are working to put a system in place over the next month or two.

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