Salt Lake County is nearly a decade behind California's earthquake-zone communities in preparing for The Big One, but public administrators can speed up the process by placing more emphasis on earthquake readiness.
That was one of many messages delivered Tuesday to leaders of local governments and law enforcement, public works and emergency services departments on the first day of a weeklong seminar on disaster preparedness.The Integrated Emergency Management Course "Earthquake," sponsored by the Salt Lake County Commission and the County Fire Department, continues through Friday at Camp Williams.
A California state official warned the 50 or so in attendance Tuesday that devastation caused by a large quake will require managers to change the way they would typically respond to an emergency. And only by answering some difficult questions ahead of time, Mike Guerin argued, will Wasatch Front communities be able to respond adequately to such a crisis and lay the groundwork for a quick and complete recovery.
"It will be hairy. A lot of people will die, even if you're prepared, but you're going to minimize that with effective action and planning," said Guerin, former deputy director of emergency services for California.
Guerin, hired as a consultant to help conduct the course, was joined by West Valley City Emergency Services Director Kay Sad-ler and Salt Lake County Fire Chief Don Berry as the principal speakers Tuesday, a day devoted to public policy issues as they relate to earthquake disaster management.
Mike Stever, emergency program manager for Salt Lake City, said the daylong session provided him with "four pages of good ideas and things I'd like to champion."
"This is definitely moving in the right direction," Stever said of the level of earthquake preparedness in the Salt Lake area. "We'll catch up fast. . . . There just seems to be a certain sense of urgency throughout the valley - a sense of commitment."
That commitment has translated into a state of preparedness here that in some ways is equivalent to, or even ahead of, California's, Stever argued. He said individuals and families along the Wasatch Front are perhaps better prepared than their West Coast counterparts, in part as a result of the local culture, he said. Many families here have emergency supplies on hand and have secured structures in their homes, like water heaters, to withstand some shaking, he said.
But overall, Guerin estimated, Salt Lake County and Utah are about where California was before the 1986 Coalingacq quake. He shared what his state learned from that quake, and subsequent temblors in Whittier, San Francisco and Northridge.
Guerin advised local leaders to tell their municipal employees and emergency crews that, in the event of a major quake, they will be asked to perform duties they don't normally carry out. A deputy sheriff, for example, might be expected to put out a fire, rescue people, evacuate areas, shut off utilities and assess damage in addition to serving as an officer of the law, he said.
When it comes to an earthquake, Guerin said cities must restructure the way they would normally react to an emergency.
"If you try to handle your public safety response with that typical approach, you will still be responding call-to-call-to-call six months later," Guerin said. "You have to decide what the first priority is for all the chess pieces out there.
"You can solve a lot of problems by listening to people. The best friend you can have after The Big One hits is your dispatcher."
Communications could be a problem, though, if officials from the county's 13 governmental entities are on different radio frequencies, as is currently the case. Tosh Kano, the county's director of public works, told those in attendance that progress has been made in coordinating those frequencies. Kano is also working on a plan for permanent storage of earthquake debris.
And other government-sponsored programs are under way.
Public service announcements urging people to prepare for a big quake began running on local TV and radio stations last month. The state has planned an April 18 exercise to simulate widespread power outages and utility failures resulting from a major earthquake in Salt Lake City during the winter.