NERTing — Week 1

Why worry about that big earthquake, anyway?

I recently enrolled in an emergency preparedness program, called NERT, run by the San Francisco Fire Department. I’m not originally a California girl and I figure instead of freaking out about how we’re all going to die in the big earthquake, the best thing I can do is be as prepared as possible. And after taking this class, I’m urging you to do likewise.

NERT stands for Neighborhood Emergency Response Team. It’s essentially a system to mobilize trained civilian volunteers in the city of San Francisco, in the event of a big disaster.

The training is technically applicable to all types of disaster — man made, natural, illness, terrorism, zombie apocalypse, etc. But this being San Francisco, by far the most likely disaster we’ll face is the big earthquake, so the course focuses heavily on that. The Fire Department cheerfully acknowledges how woefully understaffed they will be when (not if) the “Big One” happens, so the goal of the NERT program is to prepare as many San Francisco residents as possible to:

  1. Be self-sufficient following a disaster
  2. Provide emergency assistance to their household and immediate neighbors
  3. Work as a team in their local area to do simple firefighting, head off further injuries, perform search and rescue, and perform basic triaging/disaster medicine.

The reminders they’ve been beating into us over and over through the course are “NERT’s don’t get hurt” and “Do the most good for the greatest number of people”. That is, if you injure yourself while attempting to help someone else after a disaster, you’ve just removed a useful volunteer AND added to the victim count. That’s a lose-lose. Your own safety comes first; don’t be a hero.

The other is a reminder that in a true emergency, we’ll be operating under utilitarian principles. People come before pets come before property, and it’s more useful to spend 20 minutes digging half a dozen people out of rubble in a building lobby before it collapses, instead of spending 20 minutes doing CPR on one individual who is severely injured and might not even make it.


Geological predictions vary a bit, but essentially, there’s a greater than 60% chance of a big earthquake (magnitude 6.7+) occurring on either the northern San Andreas (running through the west side of San Francisco) or the Hayward fault (running through Oakland and the Berkeley hills) within the next 30 years. When it occurs, this is what will happen:

  1. Emergency personnel will be completely overwhelmed — there are not enough hospital beds, ambulances, or EMTs in the Bay Area to handle the expected numbers of injuries.
  2. Firefighting units will be completely overwhelmed — there are not enough engines/firefighters on staff to handle the expected number of fires, especially if there are high winds.
  3. It will take approximately three days for the calvary to fully arrive, in the form of FEMA, the national guard, emergency supplies of food and water, mobile medical units, etc.
  4. Roads/transit will be disrupted (and not in the tech sense). Road structures will be damaged, and if the power is out, much of MUNI/BART won’t be able to operate.
  5. Utilities will be disrupted — you may be without normal power/gas/water service for weeks.
  6. Cell service will go down/be patchy/be overwhelmed by the sheer volume of people trying to get calls through, especially immediately after a disaster.

Let me spell this out for you — the fire department measures huge fires as “conflagrations”. One conflagration is 4 city blocks. When the big one happens, they predict 71 large fires plus 10 conflagrations will occur, necessitating 273 engines to concurrently extinguish them. The SFFD currently has only 44 engines.

They also predict a repeat of the 1906 earthquake during working hours will result in ~6,000 fatalities and up to 45,000 injuries in SF and the East Bay. The best number I can come up with is around 4,500 hospital beds available in the city. Only the most critically injured people will receive immediate medical attention. When you call 911, if you can even get the phone call through, most likely an ambulance will NOT come.

Your pipes may break and stores will quickly run out of bottled water. If you don’t have a stash of water at home, you might be going without until FEMA shows up.

This. Will. Be. Bad.

Ominous enough to motivate you to do something? Good! Because after the SFFD thoroughly doom-and-gloomed us in the first class, they then went on to teach us a lot of useful things vis-a-vis preparation and action, documented in the rest of this series for your learning pleasure.

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