Disaster Preparedness & Recovery

7 Ways the Response to a Devastating Earthquake Has Changed

How emergency response would be different than it was 24 years ago following the Loma Prieta earthquake.

Most San Francisco Bay Area residents over 30 years old remember exactly where they were at 5:04 p.m. on Oct. 17, 1989, when the magnitude 6.9 Loma Prieta earthquake shook the region.

I certainly do. I was just getting ready to drive home to Palo Alto, a few miles from the editorial offices of InfoWorld, a technology publication in Menlo Park, where I worked. Our second-floor offices shook violently. The building seemed to twist and warp under the pressure. Bookshelves and desktops all emptied their contents into the aisles, but there were no injuries. Shaken up, I made my way home slowly through chaotic traffic and fallen debris. Others were not so lucky. The quake killed 63 people, injured 3,757 and left several thousand homeless. It proved to be both a major test of area emergency management and a wake-up call about the region’s disaster preparedness efforts.

Today Bay Area residents live with the realization that another big quake is in their future. In 2007, earthquake scientists led by the U.S. Geological Survey estimated that there is a 63 percent probability of a magnitude 6.7 or greater earthquake in the Bay Area in the next 30 years.

So what has changed since 1989 in terms of response capabilities? If a major quake struck today, how would emergency management be different than it was 24 years ago? There have been many lessons learned cumulatively since Loma Prieta in terms of emergency response, said Rob Dudgeon, deputy director of the San Francisco Department of Emergency Management (DEM), where he leads the Division of Emergency Services. “Things didn’t change all of a sudden in 1990,” he said. “But if an earthquake happened today, everything about the response would be different.”

Here are seven ways in which today’s response promises to be different:

1. Modern Emergency Operations Center

One of the most obvious differences is that today, there is a seismically reinforced and modern emergency operations center. “The EOC during the Loma Prieta quake proved inadequate,” Dudgeon said. Earlier this year, Emergency Management gave readers an inside look at the new EOC during the Golden Guardian exercise in May, during which agencies worked together on practicing for the response and recovery to a simulated magnitude 7.8 earthquake.

San Francisco now uses the WebEOC incident management tool for situational awareness and to help keep everyone on the same page. This year’s functional exercise focused on carrying out policies, response and recovery for up to 48 hours after the earthquake hit. Representatives of the agencies participating in the exercise relied on both technology as well as face-to-face communication to help each other follow protocol.

2. Standardized Emergency Management System

Earthquake response in California has benefited not just from previous quakes, but also lessons learned during other types of emergencies. In response to problems experienced during the Oakland Hills fires in 1991, the California Legislature passed a law requiring a clear incident command system during emergencies. The standardized emergency management system provides for a five-level emergency response organization, and is intended to structure and facilitate the flow of emergency information and resources within and between the organizational levels.

“Now we have a unified command structure, so we have experts in charge of their areas and not the mayor making all the decisions,” said Dudgeon, who was working on an ambulance in Oakland during Loma Prieta. “How we deal with multiple casualty incidents is different and communications with hospital emergency rooms is better,” he added.

3. Use of Social Media and Mobile Devices

The San Francisco DEM has adopted several social media channels and continues to experiment with them during events. The city uses a text-based notification system, AlertSF, and Twitter. AlertSF sends alerts regarding emergencies disrupting vehicular and pedestrian traffic as well as citywide post-disaster information to registered wireless devices and email accounts. Registrants can also sign up to receive English-language automated information feeds and alerts targeted to specific areas of the city.

David Raths  |  Contributing Writer

David Raths is a contributing writer for Emergency Management magazine.

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