Mountain View Voice

News - October 1, 2010

The sheltering schools

Local campuses ready for emergency crews, residents if disaster strikes

by Nick Veronin

While people rushed to flee the the devastating natural-gas explosion and fire that struck the Crestmoor neighborhood of San Bruno last month, safety officials at Skyline College, situated about a mile from the blast site, sat tight and encouraged students to begin preparing to spend the night.

According to Chief Ron Levine of the Foothill-De Anza Community College District Police Department, he and his staff would do the same if a disaster struck in Mountain View or another nearby city.

That's because Foothill and De Anza colleges, like Skyline and many other schools across the state, not only have plans for their own students, they are also ready to double as hubs for emergency personnel and shelters for displaced families in the event of a major emergency.

"We're always thinking about these types of incidents," Levine said about the San Bruno conflagration. "We know that in disaster situations the colleges are put to task."

Both Foothill and De Anza partner with the Red Cross, which is prepared to turn both campuses into community shelters. The district also works with Cal Fire, the California Department of Forestry and Fire Prevention, which is ready to use school parking lots as staging areas to launch emergency operations. Stanford's Life Flight helicopters periodically practice landing on the district's athletic fields.

Colleges are not the only local educational facilities that are called upon to serve the community in the event of an emergency. The Mountain View Los Altos Unified High School District and the Mountain View Whisman School District are also ready to accommodate emergency personnel and displaced community members.

The high school district has an agreement with the Red Cross similar to Foothill-De Anza's, said Steve Hope, an associate superintendent. Each year the school district holds a major drill in which emergency crews come to Mountain View and Los Altos high schools.

The district also invites shortwave radio operators to come in and practice using their equipment, Hope said. In the event that both land lines and cell phones are disrupted, shortwave radios can be used to coordinate response teams.

The Red Cross has trailers full of emergency supplies on the Crittenden and Graham middle school campuses, ready to be deployed, according Kathi Lilga, executive assistant to the superintendent for Mountain View Whisman.

All three districts abide by national and state safety protocols developed to streamline operations for emergency response teams. That way, if help is needed from outside the districts, those coming in to assist should be able to jump right in and be on the same page — a feat that is often easier said than done.

According to Levine, as recently as the Oakland Hills fire of 1991, it was not uncommon for emergency responders from different agencies to use different protocols and terminology. This often led to confusion and contributed to inefficient responses. Inefficiencies in emergency response can ultimately cost lives, he said.

"It really helps when agencies are using the same system," Lilga said, referring to the national and state emergency communications protocols. "It gets everybody on the same page speaking the same language."

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