Vol 8. Issue 35 / November 17, 2008

Are You Ready for the Big One?

By Mika Ono

Could you survive three days suddenly shut off from the outside world—with no water service, electricity, gas, open supermarkets, or working telephones? That's what you should be prepared for, according to John Wiecjorek, Senior Emergency Services Coordinator with the San Diego County Office of Emergency Services, who spoke as part of The Scripps Research Institute Environmental Health and Safety's "Safety Gram Live!" seminar series for California employees.

"What we've learned from major emergencies like Hurricane Katrina is that there are certain things the government can do—eventually," said Wiecjorek. "But it takes time for that bureaucracy to get those resources [where they] are needed. People are going to have to be prepared themselves for a while before the help gets there."

While emphasizing the importance of planning ahead for disasters, Wiecjorek noted you can't predict exactly how a disaster will strike. You won't necessarily be together with your family in the evening when that earthquake, fire, flood, hurricane, pandemic, or act of terrorism hits. You might be sleeping. The kids might be at school. You could be at work. Depending on circumstances, the disaster might require you to evacuate—or to stay put.

What You Can Do

In the seminar, Wiecjorek focused on what people could and should do at home to prepare for an emergency. Tips included taking a CPR and first aid class, keeping emergency contacts handy, learning the contingency plans of your kids' schools, knowing how to shut off your gas valve, and having a family plan and emergency items on hand.

"Practice your plan," he advised. "It's one thing to say, 'We sat down and talked about it.' It's another thing to say, 'OK, let's pretend we just had an earthquake, where do we go?' or 'There's a fire coming, what do I take?' The more you practice, the more likely you'll do the right thing when the real thing happens."

Authorities suggest stockpiling vital emergency supplies including the following items:

  • first aid kit (one of the most common injuries during a disaster is cut feet from walking on broken glass),
  • water,
  • canned or freeze-dried food,
  • a can opener,
  • flashlight,
  • radio,
  • extra batteries,
  • fire extinguisher (fires are common after disasters due to gas line breaks),
  • blankets,
  • cash.

Checklists, such as a personal evacuation checklist, are also useful. "When an emergency happens, you're not thinking clearly," he said. "Things happen and you're grabbing things that aren't important. It's easier to work off a list than trying to figure it out under pressure."

In addition to some of the supplies listed above, your personal list should include items such as medications, extra eyeglasses, hearing aid batteries; pet food; important documents such as insurance policies; and photos. An emergency backpack for kids with their supplies and toys can also come in handy.

How to Stay Informed During a San Diego Emergency

When you are in the middle of an emergency situation, Wiecjorek noted that staying informed will help you respond appropriately. A variety of federal, state, and local agencies are set up to convey information during an emergency through a variety of channels.

These include Alert San Diego, the Office of Emergency Services' reverse 911 system. Anyone in the county with a traditional landline is automatically registered in this system. To register a cell phone, voice over Internet protocol (VoIP) number, or email address, go to Alert San Diego's web page.

Local radio and TV stations can be good sources of information, and some offer a sign up for email alerts. The primary San Diego radio station for the federally supported Emergency Alert System is KOGO AM 600, which has good coverage across most of the county.

Finally, the 2-1-1 group has played an important role in distributing information in San Diego and other locales. In non-emergency situations, the hotline helps people find services such as training, food pantries, addiction prevention programs, affordable housing, and support groups (see http://211us.org/). During an emergency, you can call "211" for emergency updates, including for your particular neighborhood, which may or may not be receiving media attention.

"During emergencies we give [the people at 211] as much information as we can," said Wiecjorek, "so they are current with what is going on."

Additional Resources

Since many people will need help during a disaster, Wiecjorek encouraged individuals who can to register to volunteer. Volunteers who speak more than one language are in particular demand. To sign up as a volunteer in San Diego (for disasters and otherwise), contact Volunteer San Diego http://www.volunteersandiego.org/. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) also provides useful guidelines and contacts for volunteering (see FEMA's "Helping Others" web page)

Wiecjorek also shared a number of websites that provide additional information on emergency preparation and response in San Diego County:

Larry Wylie, Scripps Florida Environmental Health & Safety director, shares the following Florida resources on emergency preparation and response:

Both men also cited the following national organizations:

During an emergency, Scripps Research employees can call a hotline to find the work status of the campus. California employees should call (858) 784-7000; Florida employees, (561) 228-2999. The institute's website and email system will continue to be another source of information.

Send comments to: mikaono[at]scripps.edu














"The more you practice, the more likely you'll do the right thing when the real thing happens."

—John Wiecjorek