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Neighbors Get Their Disaster Plans Together Ahead of Time : Preparedness: Huntington Beach program that organizes citizen emergency response teams hailed by state officials as a model for other cities.


HUNTINGTON BEACH — It looked as if disaster had struck Lochlea Lane.

Five men and women, wearing hard hats and emergency gear, were kneeling by a medical-evacuation carrier on a front lawn. A patient lay motionless in the metal-frame carrier.

Terry Scott, the team leader of the evacuation group, tersely gave instructions. "Now, everybody lift," he said. The team rose in unison, and the carrier basket rose, firmly but gently. The team then carried it to the street.

Scott seemed pleased. "That's very good," he told the team.

The scene last week was on the front lawn of Scott's home, near the beach area. The men and women were his neighbors, practicing emergency procedures. And the training illustrated how this city is pioneering a program of organizing neighborhoods so that they can respond when an earthquake or other disaster occurs.

The new groups are something like Neighborhood Watch teams, but with a difference.

The difference is that these volunteers are on the alert for disasters rather than crimes.

Huntington Beach is the first city in Orange County, and only the second in the state, to form a Citizen Emergency Response Team, according to state officials.

"Our CERT volunteers would help residents care for each other after an emergency such as an earthquake or tornado," said Glorria Morrison, Huntington Beach's emergency services coordinator. "We started forming these CERT units after that tornado hit a mobile home park here in March, 1991."

Morrison said the new program operates on a fiscal shoestring. The total cost to the city is about $6,000 a year for printing and mailing literature and instruction, she said.

Neighborhoods, covering half a square mile, are being organized all over the city. Teams include a ham-radio operator and first-aid specialist. The central concept is that disasters, such as severe earthquakes, can shut down roads, water, gas and electricity. Neighborhoods may be isolated for days. The special teams would coordinate a neighborhood's food, available water and first aid and would send radio messages to "the outside."

Gardner Davis, Southern California regional administrator of the state's Office of Emergency Services, praised Huntington Beach as a vanguard city in the creation of neighborhood-preparedness units. "To my knowledge, only one other city in the state, Rancho Cucamonga, has set up similar emergency teams," Davis said.

"In case of a disaster, government can't do it all," Davis added. "Resources will be scarce. We need to have strong community groups that know what to do and have the strength and confidence to do it."

Huntington Beach particularly needs disaster preparation, safety officials said, because the city straddles the Newport-Inglewood earthquake fault. A city map that tracks the fault and its offshoots graphically depicts how Huntington Beach is virtually a honeycomb of potential quakes.

"The fault is directly in front of my house," said one community volunteer, Jan McKnew of Huntington Harbour. She added that she has an obvious reason for wanting to learn more about earthquake-safety procedures.

But earthquakes are not the only disaster worry for Huntington Beach, Morrison said.

"The city is at the mouth of the Santa Ana River, so we have to be concerned about possible floods," she said. "We also get waterspouts that come in from the ocean, as well as tornadoes. There's always the possibility of a tsunami," a huge sea wave caused by an underwater earthquake.

Morrison, an employee of the Huntington Beach Fire Department, works in an underground emergency services room at City Hall. Her duties include formation of new neighborhood emergency teams. Morrison said the city has about 30 teams now, and that about 70 more are needed to cover all areas of the city.

"We set up neighborhood meetings in schools to let people know about CERT," she said. "We give the schoolchildren flyers to take home to their parents to notify them about the meetings." The night meetings at the various schools become the launching pad for new neighborhood teams.

Morrison said at least 10 neighborhood volunteers are needed to create a team. Each team is divided into a command-post unit and subgroups for search and rescue, first aid and safety. Members of the safety unit would go up and down streets, looking for natural gas leaks and shutting off utilities where necessary.

"Each neighborhood command post has a team leader and also a person who's in charge of logistics--getting things the neighborhood needs," Morrison said. "Each post also has a communications volunteer, a person who's skilled in amateur radio."

Neighborhood command posts most likely would assemble in an outdoor area in the aftermath of a disaster, she said, because structures might be unsafe. Therefore, emergency teams often practice in an outdoor setting, she noted.

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