S.F. mayor, D.C. officials share concerns over alerting residents to disasters
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By ZACHARY COILE
The San Francisco Chronicle (California)
WASHINGTON, D.C. — San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom toured Washington's state-of-the-art emergency command center Thursday to pick up tips on how the nation's capital is planning for its nightmare scenario — terrorism.
While San Francisco lives in fear of earthquakes, Newsom heard how Washington officials wake up worrying about a biological attack on Capitol Hill, a dirty bomb on the Mall or a suicide attack in the subway or the streets designed to cause maximum panic.
Newsom said San Francisco shares some of the same fears of a terrorist attack. The city is regularly ranked by counterterrorism officials among the top five American cities at risk of an attack, just behind New York and Washington.
"We're an iconic city, we're a port city," Newsom said, adding that San Francisco has many landmarks, from the Golden Gate Bridge to the Transamerica Pyramid, that are considered symbolic targets.
Washington officials told the mayor about an emergency drill with local and federal officials last fall that simulated an assassination attempt on the president during a speech at George Washington University.
City officials have asked the Smithsonian to shelter tourists in the museums if an attack occurs near the Mall, and downtown hotels could serve as shelters and emergency aid stations for the injured. The hotel association even has a seat at the command center, along with the Federal Emergency Management Agency and other first responders.
As in San Francisco, emergency officials here in Washington, D.C., said their biggest concern is whether the public is adequately prepared for the first chaotic hours and days after a catastrophic disaster.
"There's a certain apathy that sets in," said Kerry Payne, the deputy chief of operations for Washington's emergency command center. "People say, 'Nothing is going to happen' or 'The government is going to be there to take care of me.' "
Both cities are preparing residents to be on their own for the first 72 hours. Washington officials are handing out thousands of emergency kits with water, food rations and flashlights. San Francisco has set up a Web site — www.72hours.org — to show residents how to survive with no water, gas or electricity for three days until help arrives.
Washington has organized the city into dozens of "clusters," putting local volunteers, church leaders and school officials in charge of the emergency response in their neighborhoods.
The city also has trained about 4,000 people as community emergency responders, with about 1,000 who are active. San Francisco, which has long been preparing for the Big One, has trained about 15,000 emergency responders, with about 9,000 who are active, Newsom said.
Washington officials were impressed with San Francisco's emergency warning system, with 65 sirens set up around the city that can broadcast news during an emergency.
"It's probably one of the smartest things we have done," Newsom said.
Washington is trying out a "text alert" system in which residents sign up for emergency alerts to be sent to their cell phones, pagers or computer e-mail. But Sandra Perkins, the chief of staff at the city's emergency planning agency, said she also urges residents to buy $15 battery-powered TVs in case the electricity is knocked out during a disaster.
Newsom said he was jealous of Washington's high-tech command center, a huge room full of dozens of new computers with a wall of flat-panel TV screens showing news and live traffic camera footage. City officials can broadcast announcements from the center during emergencies.
"The technology we're seeing across the country is, in many cases, superior to what we have in San Francisco," Newsom said. "We need to make the investments in updating our equipment in ways that, frankly, we haven't."
The mayor noted that after a major explosion rocked the Financial District last August, he was told that a Pacific Gas and Electric transformer had exploded, but could not communicate the news quickly enough to the media, which had begun reporting that it could be a terrorist attack.