‘Decompressed’ thoughts: Hindsight is 20/20, Foresight is Priceless

In this em4SF Blog, we are taking a look back to late August (on the eve of the hustle and bustle that our fall outreach brings) and are enjoying the unique perspective from a San Francisco neophyte on Burning Man.  Our author is Polly Zebrowsk who joined DEM as an intern last Spring. Polly came to us by way of passion for emergency management through her studies in emergency management at Tulane University.


When I look back at Burning Man from the perspective of a non-native Californian -freshly moved to the Bay Area from the South but a mere two months ago, my mind warps: What WAS that? And how did they do it? Ah, yes, I can see it all now…

As someone who works for the Department of Emergency Management, my nerdiest of passions revolve around preparedness and resilience. They go hand in hand and reinforce one another. I like the metaphor of being in a boxing ring with Life and its calamities: if you’ve been training you’ll perform better in a fight, rolling with the punches, it will take a lot more than a few hard hits to take you down. So with this in mind, how would any city fare when hit by disaster? Only about as well as its citizens can take a metaphorical punch.

Photo by Trey Ratcliff

The city of Black Rock is erected from nothingness in barely any time at all. I arrived there to find myself amidst smiling, dust-coated bodies serving food to one another from grills and camp stoves, playing music under playa-fied tents lined up, forming roads and neighborhoods. Even now I still ponder: if only households and communities had the capacity to do THIS after a disaster. Everything that anyone needed was there, and the reason for that was because they supplied it themselves. “Radical Self Reliance” -one of the key Burningman concepts -to me reads as, “Being Prepared”, but it goes further than that; this city raised in no-time out of the dust is done so well each year because it is organized and thought out beforehand. Public resources are strategically placed to be fair and accessible; agreements are made ahead of time to ensure their upkeep, which would be impossible if those responsible for such duties weren’t already prepared to take care of themselves first. A voice in my head calls out like an extreme sports announcer: “TOTAL, SUPREME PREPAREDNESS”.

Photo by Trey Ratcliff

Interestingly, there is more that goes into the resilient behavior of those at Burning Man than just having the stuff they need; mindset can be half the battle to recovery, and in the Playa it’s all positivity and acceptance. A subculture culture arises. The event itself attracts the type of person who seeks a more optimistic version of themselves and others, one that genuinely desires to adhere to Burning Man principles like self reliance, open mindedness, sharing, etc. I could sense these traits being encouraged at all times. Complete strangers could interact and bond, regardless of differences, and be of assistance to each other:”Hey, you, would like a drink?” or, “Someone over there said you needed a charger, do you want to use ours with our generator?” These were commonplace interactions. The level of kindness was astounding. From a socioeconomic standpoint, perhaps this was helped by the fact that no resources were scarce; everyone brought enough of what they needed for themselves and then some extras to share.

Photo by Trey Ratcliff

My thinking is this: If everyone in San Francisco prepared themselves for an emergency the way that Burners do for Burning Man, we would see fewer incidents escalate to disaster level, and we would all be more equipped to handle a situation when it occurs and bounce back from it afterward. So I say pack for the Burn early, even if you aren’t a Burner, pretend you are one and get together your week’s worth of food, water and necessities and keep them someplace handy, maybe even go in on a generator with your housemates and neighbors if you feel like splurging. Have a plan with your pals like you would on the playa for where to find each other or check in somehow when you have no local cell power, get ready for it now and you’ll be ready for anything.

Photo by Trey Ratcliff

Who Shook Out?

Last week 9.4 million people in California participated in the largest earthquake drill in the state…in the country…in the world!  Now in its fourth year, ShakeOut aims to arm Californians with the knowledge of what to do during an earthquake, which is to drop, cover and hold-on. The act of practicing with our school mates, work colleagues, neighbors, friends, and family does two important things:

  1. It helps us to engage in a collective activity within our social networks that gets us talking about earthquake safety and preparedness with each other, which helps to make earthquake preparedness a cultural norm.
  2. By practicing dropping, covering and holding on, we develop muscle memory so we instinctively know what to do next time the earth moves.

In the City and County of San Francisco, nearly 327,000 people participated in ShakeOut and/or participated in a broad range of drills and other preparedness activities. In this em4SF Blog, we are highlighting two of many drills that took place (and could still be taking place as the window to ShakeOut is two weeks).  That said, did you ShakeOut? If so, let us know and we’ll spread the word on what you did via @em4SF!  And if you didn’t , it’s not too late to register and practice the life saving move: drop, cover, and hold on.

And now for our ShakeOut highlights:

Dr. Charles Drew Elementary School ShakeOut Drill 

Every year, the San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD) participates in ShakeOut and DEM works with SFUSD to select a school for the Mayor to ‘ShakeOut’ with the students.  This year, Dr. Charles Drew Elementary School in the Bayview was selected, and not only did they do an amazing  job practicing dropping, covering, and holding on, every one of the nearly 400 students did one of the smoothest evacuations we may have ever seen.

Joined by Mayor Ed Lee, San Francisco Fire Chief Joanne Hayes-White, and San Francisco Police Chief Greg Suhr, DEM Deputy Director Rob Dudgeon ‘shookout’ with Dr. Drew Elementary School and practiced the drop, cover, and hold-on move with the third graders of the Berkeley Class (Dr. Drew Elementary School is a College Preparatory Academy offering a challenging learning environment for students in PreK through 3rd grade with classes named after esteemed Californian academic institutions).

“I think your class is really special” said Mayor Lee as he asked the kids why he was so fond of the Berkeley name sake; “because you went there!” said one of the astute students.  While the Mayor, Chiefs, and DEM Deputy Director got the kids ready for the drill, the kids were invited to ask our city officials any questions, most humorous being a question to the Mayor asking how old he is.  Another child asked how the city officials worked together (very smart kids…definitely Berkeley candidates!) and the Mayor explained how DEM runs the city’s Emergency Operations Center and that DEM Deputy Director, Rob Dudgeon manages emergencies there, along other city departments and agencies.  Then, at 10:18 am, the drill commenced and the children, the Mayor, the Chiefs, and the DEM Deputy Director practiced the move: drop, cover, and hold on. They all did an excellent job! Then, the kids showed off their evacuation savvy and exited the building in perfect concert and silence.

DEM wants to extend a heartfelt thanks and appreciation to Drew Elementary Principal Tamitrice Rice-Mitchell for taking earthquake preparedness so seriously and allotting special time for the students to practice (they pre-practiced for ShakeOut numerous times).  The kids definitely know the move to drop, cover, and hold on and now they are helping their families and friends know what to do the next time the earth moves.

 California Academy of Science ShakeOut Drill 

It may have looked like any other day in the California Academy of Sciences Earthquake: Life on a Dynamic Planet exhibit, but the timing of this new exhibit being open (it was opened last May and will be displayed for the next two years) for it’s first official ShakeOut drill was too much of a thematic alignment of earthquake science and earthquake safety to pass up.  That said, the California Academy’s guests shook out in support of ShakeOut with the rest of California last week.

A special group of guests participated in the drill–the students from Mithril Cox’s third grade class at Arrgonne Elementary School, who came to the Academy to learn all about earthquakes.

To prime the guests to get ready for the drill, the California Academy of Sciences made an announcement to the museum guests five minutes before the drill took place.  Then, at 10:18 the announcement over the loud speakers told everyone to ShakeOut, and most guests dropped, covered, and held on…and some looked puzzled about what was happening, but soon followed in suit (one of the cool things about ShakeOut is how memorable seeing someone around you demonstrating the drop, cover, and hold on move is).

Something New in Mobile Alerts: CMAS

We are happy to announce that the City of San Francisco now has the ability to alert San Francisco residents by using the Commercial Mobile Alert System.

What is CMAS?

CMAS is a the system interface to the Wireless Emergency Alerts (WEA) service that wireless carriers are rolling out across the United States this year. CMAS is a partnership between FEMA, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), and U.S. wireless carriers. It is designed to enhance public safety by providing mobile alerts in three basic areas, including: Presidential Alerts; Amber Alerts and Imminent Safety Threats, such as shelter-in-place, evacuation, Tsunamis and severe weather alerts.

Will I automatically receive CMAS alerts?

Yes, you will and so will anyone living, working or visiting San Francisco when an alert is issued. CMAS is a geographically based system and is now available on ALL major wireless carriers. Not all mobile phone models have the ability to receive notifications. Newer mobile models have the capabilities built directly into the phone.

How will I know when I receive an alert?

These automatic alerts have their own ringtone and vibration to let you know when an alert has arrived. It is unique from the alert you’ve set up for text messages. Alerts will automatically “pop up” on your screen and will be limited to 90 characters.

Due to the limited character amount, when you receive an alert the best thing to do is tune in to another media source like a radio or TV for more information.

Keep an eye out for potential alerts and make sure to tell your friends and neighbors about this new way to receive emergency messages on your mobile device.

October is More than a Month about Earthquakes…It’s about Cyber Security, too

The Loma Prieta Earthquake anniversary and ShakeOut (the annual statewide earthquake drill that takes place the third Thursday of October) make October a very earthquake-hazard-centric month. However, much like the nature of life, there many walks of hazard–including man-made ones like cyber terrorism.  So, along with earthquake month, October also is National Cyber Security Awareness Month.  

In this em4SF Blog, our DEM Division of Emergency Services Assistant Deputy Director, Bijan Karimi, shares his thoughts about the importance of cyber security, and what we can do to keep our cyber-world secure.


Cyber-attackers are at it again; yet another report was released that banks were hacked.  But here’s the thing, they are not ‘at it again’, they never went away.  You only heard about it because another story was released by the media.  Cyber-attacks happen all the time.  I don’t mean one or two, I mean thousands, tens of thousands.  All day, every-day, around the world.

Your phone, TV, DVR, tablet, laptop, computer and maybe even your refrigerator are now connected to the internet.  Many corporations have parts of their operations infrastructure connected to the internet.  Private infrastructure providers rely extensively on internet connections to manage their production, transmission and distribution networks.  Each connection is a point of vulnerability.  Maybe someone wants to change your channel, steal your credit card information, or dispense ice from the freezer.  Then again, maybe they want to steal corporate secretes or shut the power off to 500,000 people.

The Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Defense recognize the expanding vulnerability that exists in our interconnected world.  October is National Cyber Security Awareness Month and DHS is calling on all Americans to ACT—Achieve Cybersecurity Together.  Do you have a personal firewall?  What about antivirus?  More than one antivirus?  If not, why not?  You may have a virus and not even know it.  Encryption, private networks, and firewalls are all ways for individuals and organizations to protect themselves, but they have issues of their own.  Individuals, corporations and the telecommunications companies that transmit internet traffic need to coordinate to promote safe online practices.

There are many different resources available to learn more about cyber terrorism, ways to protect yourself and how you can contribute to a more cyber-secure nation.  Of the many books and articles I have read, I found Cyber War by Richard A. Clarke particularly helpful in outlining the issues, challenges and identifying some possible solutions.


About the Author:

Whether it be pandemic, earthquake, or a zombie apocalypse, Bijan Karimi is prepared for just about anything.  He is passionate about walking the walk as emergency manager, volunteer search and rescuer, and urban farmer (his back yard bears a garden thriving with fruits and vegetables that would keep him and his family set (and healthy) in the event of an emergency).  Just check out the stuff in his trunk! 

Then and Now Reflections of the Loma Prieta Earthquake

Today marks the 23rd anniversary of the Loma Prieta earthquake. Although this earthquake may not be one of recent memory, it still remains one of the most significant disasters to have occurred in the Bay Area (and California at large). And the memories from those of us who experience the earthquake first hand are fresh, which is why we are dedicating this em4SF blog today, and through the rest of this commemorative week, to story telling around Loma Prieta Earthquake. Today, on the anniversary, we are sharing  a first hand account of the Loma Prieta Earthquake from then Mayor Art Agnos.

About the begin the interview, pictured left to right is DEM Deputy Director Rob Dudgeon, Mayor Art Agnos and DEM EMS Administrator, and who interviewed the Mayor, Steve LaPlante.

We hope you will take a few minutes to listen to his account and take this anniversary as a good reminder to recommitt to preparing for an emergency–no matter how big or small–and visit 72hours.org to learn how.