Midpeninsula Post

“It could be days”: The state of Los Altos’ emergency preparedness, and what you can do to help


As winter storms ravage much of the United States, many residents in cities like Los Altos lie in wait of “the big earthquake” to come in the next few years. While many envision first responders rushing down their streets with sirens blaring, much of the assistance citizens will need will have to come from individuals and neighbors helping one another out.

Depending on the time of day, emergency response time from first responders could be incredibly varied, with potentially disastrous consequences.

“If it’s 2 o’clock in the morning, hardly anyone is on shift; if it’s two o’clock in the afternoon, a lot of people are on shift,” said Los Altos Emergency Preparedness Coordinator Ann Hepenstal during an interview with the Post. “It could be hours; it could be days. In a normal time, you call 911, ‘Oh my dad is having a heart attack,’ boom they are there with paramedics. But if it is a regional disaster, phones might not be working.”

The fire and police departments will serve vital functions following a wide scale disaster, such as medical assistance, but much of the other assistance residents will need — clearing roads, fixing sewers and other public works projects — will be put on hold due to the lengthy commute for municipal services employees, who carry out those tasks.

The average municipal services employee commutes 26 miles, meaning that with potentially collapsed roads, municipal service workers may not be able to come to Los Altos for hours, likely days.

Along with municipal service workers, first responders employed by the city, namely police officers, live an average of 26 miles away, making immediate assistance in the late evening or early morning unlikely. 

Although emergency response may be late, there is plenty of emergency planning individual residents and the broader community can contribute to. One of the most popular ways to stay prepared in the city is by joining a community-led block action team (BAT).

A BAT, one of the cornerstones of the city’s preparedness plans, is a collection of neighbors who live close to each other; they play an essential part in preparing residents for emergencies by having meetings and planning for disasters.

“No single fire agency or group of responder agencies can respond solely and effectively to a  large-scale disaster without help,” said Luisa Rapport, an information officer for the Santa Clara County Fire Department. “It’s going to be on that neighborhood level that will really make a difference in a disaster.”

While in a normal year emergency preparedness would take a backseat to other priorities, Hepenstal hopes that families can use time in quarantine to work together and ensure better emergency preparedness for their household. She suggested taking first aid classes and leading family activities such as creating an emergency food supply.

In Los Altos and the surrounding region, the largest concern when it comes to natural disasters surrounds “the big earthquake.” Because of this, much of the individual disaster planning residents should do revolves around an earthquake scenario.

Ensuring that furniture items such as shelves and TV stands are properly attached to the wall is vitally important, as in the event of an earthquake, items may tip over. Hepenstal suggested doing a “house check” by walking around a home and checking to see if anything is hung above sleeping areas, both of humans and their animal friends.

Keeping an extra pair of shoes under the bed can be especially helpful in the case of an earthquake, where broken glass may be scattered around the floor.

“Be ready to have some emergency supplies,” Hepenstal said. “Prescription medication, water, food. Think about your individual household needs. Whether it be diapers, tampons, or whatever, so that you can be on your own for several days. And don’t forget your pets; what about Sparky? Set aside extra food and possibly a leash for your pets.”

Wildfires also serve as a great source of concern for many, but many of the same things families can do to prepare for an earthquake also apply to wildfires; keeping emergency supplies and creating evacuation plans.

Hepenstal stressed that high school students can be a valuable asset in the effort for emergency preparedness, by sharing knowledge they might have with their families, as well as starting conversations among family members on how to better prepare for emergencies.

“I think high school students can be a great force for emergency preparedness,” she said. “Teens are really the experts; you have an earthquake preparedness drill at school each day. Teach your family how to do an earthquake drill. Have the supplies, learn first aid, have the skills.”

To learn more about how to be prepared in Santa Clara County, click here. To learn more about Los Altos’ preparedness and join a BAT, click here.

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