Emergency drill lets City, state, federal agencies practice for disaster
By Tom Prete and Kyle Mizokami
At first glance, it looked bad: San Francisco firefighters, soldiers in uniform and City workers in colored vests bustled around a cluster of trucks sprouting an array of antennas and cameras.
But what had the outward hallmarks of a serious disaster in the Ocean Beach parking lot across from the Beach Chalet Tuesday morning was in fact a drill, a practice exercise that brought civilian emergency agencies together with military units to test their ability to communicate with each other electronically and face to face.
The drill at Ocean Beach was part of a broader exercise that included two sites on the east side of San Francisco, one of them another communications site and the other oriented toward practicing the inter-agency coordination that might be needed to reopen major roads and other transportation routes to bring in food, medical supplies and other needs following a disaster.
“The idea is we’re taking Department of Public Works, Public Utilities Commission, military, some contractors, and all saying, ‘OK, assume it’s three days into an earthquake event. The fires are getting put out, people are being rescued, one of the things we’ve got to do now is start opening roads,” said Rob Dudgeon, deputy director of the San Francisco Department of Emergency Management.
A contingent from the U.S. Marine Corps took part in Tuesday’s exercise, and their commander said that while the Marines are experienced in clearing roads, they can lend a hand to disaster victims even without them.
“Because we’re expeditionary in nature, we can overcome the obstacles that could limit other organizations from being able to move. Our helicopters can land right in the city, our capabilities are packaged tightly so we can deliver them right to the point of the crisis,” said Maj. Gen. Melvin Spiese.
“We would not be a burden, we can sustain ourselves, use (U.S. Navy ships) as our base, so we can deliver relief right into the heart of the city like San Francisco. Other organizations might be very good at approaching over land; we can leap over obstacles and come in from the waterborne side and start working the other way.”
Spiese is deputy commanding general of the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force and commanding general of the 1st Marine Expeditionary Brigade. His Marines, based at Camp Pendleton near San Diego, would be among the first military forces to arrive in the San Francisco Bay Area in the event of a major emergency.
Tuesday’s exercise was also tied in with the upcoming Fleet Week in San Francisco. Marines from southern California’s Camp Pendleton have attended several Fleet Week exhibitions, using the opportunity to showcase disaster relief capabilities for the public and work with civil authorities to plan coordinated responses to natural disasters.
Spiese said he came away with several insights, including “how we communicate and the language we use with civil authorities.”
“Route clearance for us, our experience in Afghanistan and Iraq is [improvised explosive devices]. Route clearance here is removing debris and opening roads,” Spiese said.
The general also noted that, in case of an emergency, the air above San Francisco would be filled with helicopters. A Marine Corps response to any disaster scenario would involve many helicopters, and the general and was concerned about airspace control at 500 feet and below.
Dudgeon said the large, flat Ocean Beach parking lot was a main reason why the exercise was held there, but some of the preparations for responding to an earthquake would also be helpful in case of a tsunami or other disaster unique to the Ocean Beach area.
Listen to more from Dudgeon and Spiese: