Disaster Readiness and Relief
March 24, 2011
You could call them the masters of disaster.
But even with an internationally-acclaimed skill set and more frequent flier miles than you can shake a boarding pass at, Los Angeles County’s urban search and rescue team has never before had a run—or a wake-up call—quite like this one.
No sooner had they returned from their post-earthquake work in Christchurch, New Zealand than they were summoned to Japan less than 36 hours later to help with the aftermath of the deadly quake and tsunami there.
“That is a first for us as a team,” said Battalion Chief Tom Ewald, who between disaster assignments heads up the county Fire Department’s Battalion 3, serving East Los Angeles and nearby communities.
The back-to-back deployments made for some joking around on the tarmac as the team—formally known as California Task Force 2—came back from mission No. 2.
“Let’s make it more than 36 hours this time before seeing each other again,” they told each other before heading home at last.
But the lessons learned on both missions are no laughing matter. And they hit close to home for members of the team because both New Zealand and Japan are affluent, highly-developed countries with many similarities to Southern California.
“We write off a lot of the lessons learned in underdeveloped countries,” such as Haiti, Ewald said, because of stark differences in building codes and other factors.
This time, “some of the takeaway was how these types of disasters would have impacted Los Angeles County.”
“Christchurch looks just like downtown Pasadena, or Long Beach,” he said. And as for the tsunami that devastated Japan: “Their only crime there was having exposure to a coastline, which we also have…How would we respond if that kind of widespread, catastrophic event had happened here?
Ewald said both incidents point up the need to further hone disaster planning and preparedness in Los Angeles, and suggest that a “decentralized decision-making” process may be required in the event of a massive catastrophe like that experienced in Japan.
On a personal level, Ewald—who managed to grab the time to watch “American Idol” with his family between deployments—took advantage of some rare down time early in the week to drop out of sight, as far as work was concerned.
“I kind of kept myself below the radar,” he said. “My cup runneth over.”
California Task Force 2 returned home from Japan on Saturday, March 19. This YouTube video captures the homecoming, as does this CBS Channel 2 video. An array of still images showing the team’s work in Japan and New Zealand is on Facebook. And a National Public Radio report is here.
March 11, 2011
The Los Angeles County Fire Department’s acclaimed rescue team, just days removed from digging through earthquake rubble in New Zealand, is now being dispatched a world away, to the devastated shores of Japan.
“You reset, refocus and start planning,” said Battalion Chief Thomas Ewald, who just returned from New Zealand himself and will be helping to coordinate from here the 74-person team’s rescue efforts in Japan, where the death toll from a monstrous earthquake and tsunami is mounting by the minute.
The Fire Department’s California Task Force 2 is only one of two urban search and rescue teams in the country regularly pressed into action by the U.S. aid agency’s Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance. The other is the Fairfax County Fire and Rescue Department. The two had distinguished themselves as the nation’s best.
In a memo to the Board of Supervisors on Friday, newly named Fire Chief Daryl L. Osby wrote: “It is a source of great pride for our organization to not only have this highly specialized response capability but to be called into duty by USAID to help save lives and property beyond our borders.”
The mission at hand differs substantially from those undertaken in the wake of earthquakes in New Zealand and in Haiti, where the team earned international praise for its work in finding and freeing residents trapped for days under buildings. This one will include a swift water rescue component because of the massive tsunami flooding.
Battalion Chief Ewald said that team members, who’ll be transporting with them inflatable rescue boats, have trained for this kind of challenging work at a variety of far-flung locations, including the Colorado River, a Department of Water and Power facility in Sylmar and the Roaring Rapids ride at Six Flags Magic Mountain in Valencia.
“This lets us put people into a controlled swift water environment,” Ewald said of the amusement park training.
The team is scheduled to leave Los Angeles International Airport tonight on a commercial charter flight that will also carry the rescue squad from Virginia.
February 23, 2011
In a historic choice, the Board of Supervisors on Tuesday announced that it has selected Daryl Osby as the next chief of the Los Angeles County Fire Department, making him the first African American to hold that position in an agency that had been slow to integrate.
Osby, a 27-year veteran of the department—and the son of a career firefighter who led fire departments in Inglewood, San Jose, San Diego and Oceanside—will assume the top job next month after the retirement of long-serving chief P. Michael Freeman.
Most recently, Osby, 49, has been in charge of the department’s business operations. He also has worked as the top commander of fire operations for a number of major incidents in recent years, including the massive fire siege in 2003, the 2005 Topanga Fire and the 2008 Wildland Fires. He also spent 18 days in Louisiana in the wake of Hurricane Katrina helping to manage recovery efforts there.
“I’m shocked but excited,” Osby said when reached in a meeting moments after the announcement of his appointment. “It’s emotional. It’s awesome to think that the board has the confidence in me to replace Chief Freeman, who has led this department for more than two decades.”
He said he was profoundly aware of the milestone his appointment represented.
“I think it’s important to understand the sacrifices not just of African Americans, but of all people who pave the way,” Osby said. “I’m excited to be the first African American, but above and beyond that, I think the board chose me because they felt I was the best candidate for the position. First and foremost, I’ve just tried to be the best individual and the best member of the fire service that I could be.”
Osby was chosen from a short list of finalists comprised entirely of department veterans. Freeman—who worked for 24 years in the Dallas Fire Department before coming to Los Angeles—has said in interviews that one of his biggest challenges was the “steep learning curve” he faced as an outsider. He suggested that the county might do well to hire its next chief from within to oversee the department, which has a budget of some $923 million and a service area roughly the size of Delaware.
Osby’s elevation is significant for a department in which diversity issues—including the recruitment and treatment of women—has been a concern.
Although the city of Los Angeles’ fire department has had black firefighters since the late 1800s, the county didn’t hire its first African American firefighter until 1953, and didn’t promote a black until the mid-1970s, after a discrimination lawsuit began to progress toward the U.S. Supreme Court. The hiring rendered the case moot by the time the high court heard it.
Today, diversity advocates within the department note that while the department has hired more than 1,000 firefighters during the past decade, only about 50 of them have been African American.
His appointment also represents a kind of continuity, however.
Born in the San Diego County community of National City, Osby is the son of a veteran fire chief. His father, Robert, was in the fire service for more than four decades before retiring as Oceanside’s first black fire chief in 2005.
The younger Osby joined the Los Angeles County Fire Department at the age of 23 in 1984 as a firefighter and paramedic. He rose steadily through the ranks, gaining experience in virtually every aspect of the department’s firefighting and internal operations.
By 2000, he was an assistant fire chief in charge of community services, public information and executive planning. The following year, he was promoted again to oversee emergency service, personnel, training and budget issues for 76 fire stations in more than 30 unincorporated areas. In 2008, he became chief deputy, initially oveseeing the county’s emergency operations and later taking responsibility for the department’s business operations, including employee relations and financial management.
That experience is expected to be crucial as the department—like the rest of county government—grapples with massive cuts in the state budget and a proposed “realignment” of responsibility and funding.
“Budget-wise, our priority is going to be that we have a sound financial plan and not have our spending exceed our revenues,” said Osby. “We’ve worked hard here to find efficiencies and work smarter, and we’ll continue that.” Among the department’s challenges, he added, would be the need to update the its infrastructure and address a number of pressing construction issues “while trying to maintain efficiencies and not have it impact public service.”
And, said Osby, the father of two daughters, diversity would continue to be a priority, in gender as well as ethnicity. Only about 1 percent of the department’s firefighters are women, for example, and Osby said one of his first jobs will be to “sit down with all our stakeholders and come up with a strategic approach.”
“We need to look at strategies to ensure we have proper outreach to let people know that this is a career for everyone,” he said. “Some people still don’t see that. And we need to break down those barriers.”
February 22, 2011
Los Angeles County’s disaster rescue-and-recovery team was mobilizing today to head to New Zealand, where a 6.3 magnitude earthquake crushed buildings and killed at least 65 people—a toll that is expected to rise as the search for the dead and injured continues around Christchurch.
The 74-member unit, known as “California Task Force 2,” was expected to leave at 2 a.m. Wednesday.
The team, made up of Los Angeles County firefighters, paramedics, emergency room doctors and other specialists, earned high marks for its work after the earthquake in Haiti. The urban search and rescue squad also has seen action in previous emergencies including Hurricane Katrina and the Oklahoma City bombing.
They’re traveling to New Zealand at the request of the U.S. Agency for
International Development and U.S. Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance, County Fire Chief Daryl Osby said in a letter to the Board of Supervisors.
“It is a source of great pride for our organization to not only have this highly specialized response capability, but to be called into duty by USAID to help save lives and property beyond our borders,” Osby said.
A fire department official is also heading to Washington, D.C., to help coordinate the team’s efforts in New Zealand.
The task force will be commanded by Battalion Chief Tom Ewald, a 19-year county fire department veteran who heads up county fire’s Battalion 3, serving East L.A., Bell and nearby communities. He worked as the team’s Pacoima-based deployment coordinator during the Haiti operation, and took part in disaster response operations after 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina.
When his day started Tuesday, Ewald had been preparing for another kind of trip. “I thought I was going home to get ready to take my family skiing,” Ewald said. “That all changed around 7 a.m.”
By early afternoon, the final arrangements were underway to transport staff and equipment to New Zealand. Ewald said the team will be ready to work as soon as they land.
“Once our equipment is off the aircraft, we can be operational within an hour,” Ewald said. “They have work sites already identified for us.”
It’s a high pressure assignment in a dangerous setting far from home. But for the Los Angeles County team, Ewald said, it’s nothing they haven’t seen before.
“It’s what we do as professional rescuers, day in and day out. We’re just plying our skills in somebody else’s backyard.”
January 18, 2011
The 911 calls flew from the terrified crowds to the police dispatchers and, within minutes, to the desk of Tony Beliz: Shots fired at Gardena High School. Students wounded.
As tragedy swept through yet another campus on Tuesday morning, Beliz—deputy director of the Department of Mental Health’s emergency outreach bureau and part of an elite cadre of county mental health and law enforcement experts—rolled out to confront the questions that in the past three years have become a specialty for the School Threat Assessment Response Team.
What causes school shootings? Can they be prevented? And what is the best, and safest way to handle the aftermath?
Launched in the aftermath of the Virginia Tech massacre that left 32 dead in 2007, the county’s so-called “START” program helps schools cope with—and — and head off– such catastrophes. The first comprehensive program of its kind in the nation, START brings schools, mental health professionals and law enforcement together to prevent and deal with campus violence.
In situations like Gardena’s—in which a gun in the backpack of a reportedly frightened teenager apparently accidently fired, wounding two students with a single bullet—Beliz says he and his colleagues will make themselves available for after-the-fact mental health counseling and other support to the students and school, should it be needed. In other situations, the teams intervene early to evaluate the public threat of students exhibiting mental health problems.
START’s mission—and that of threat assessment teams like it on campuses all over the country—has been especially relevant in the wake of high profile incidents both nationally and locally.
In Arizona, a threat assessment team at Pima Community College identified Jared Lee Loughner as a potential concern months before the gunman killed six people and injured 13 in Tucson, but the larger community response was too fragmented to stop him.
Closer to home, at Cal State Northridge, school mental health counselors and campus police worked together last week to hospitalize and arrest a 22-year-old student who had not only allegedly threatened students and staff, but also had hidden firearms and explosives in his dorm room.
CSUN Police Chief Anne Glavin established the department’s threat assessment program after her arrival in 2002. Still, the department turned to county mental health officials for help at one point in ensuring that all the doctors involved understood the gravity of the student’s behavior. The student, who has pleaded not guilty, is being held on $1 million bail.
On Tuesday, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors voted to develop a plan to expand programs like START as a way to better identify students with mental health problems that might threaten public safety.
“Timely intervention has likely prevented a number of school tragedies,” said Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, who introduced the motion asking the Department of Mental Health and the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department to explore ways to expand school violence prevention services.
“The continued presence of conditions that contribute to the frequency and severity of school-based threats make the need for an ongoing and expanded comprehensive prevention and intervention program readily apparent,” Yaroslavsky said.
Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas agreed, citing the Gardena incident.
“This kind of shocking occurrence proves that we must do everything in our power to eradicate the roots and causes of violence on our campuses,” he said.
Since its inception, START has responded to some 250 incidents of potential violence at elementary, middle school, high school and college campuses. START teams average about 200 student referrals a month, Beliz says.
The staff, comprising about 120 county clinicians and 80 law enforcement officers in Los Angeles city and county, Long Beach, Santa Monica and Pasadena, has worked closely with a variety of school districts and local universities, although the bulk of its work has been with the Los Angeles Unified School District and Los Angeles County Office of Education.
Not every school takes advantage of the program, but when they do, START makes a difference.
“There was a college student last year who had decided to stop taking his meds and was contemplating hurting himself and other people,” Beliz remembers. “And recently a 7 year old boy came to our attention, a really disturbed little boy who is fascinated by killing animals. We just saw a 13-year-old who had somehow tasted the blood of dead animals and was fascinated with violence.”
Protecting the safety of students can sometimes be tricky, requiring an understanding of possible motivations behind the potential violence, Beliz says.
“Often the schools want to expel the kid who’s made the threats,” Beliz says. “Well, think. Because with some kids, that’s the final justification. So we remind schools that every action triggers a reaction, and help them develop appropriate plans beyond zero tolerance.”
And, he says, START helps all the disparate agencies and helping hands of Greater Los Angeles find and interact with each other—no small feat in this massive metropolis.
“We try and make sure all the dots are connected,” Beliz says.
December 2, 2010
On Feb. 12, 2008, a commercial fire broke out near Compton. A Los Angeles County fire truck rushed east along 135th Street toward the scene. Lights flashing, siren blaring, the truck was doing 35 mph when the light turned red at Figueroa Street. Firefighters thought everyone had stopped or pulled over. So, downshifting, the truck rolled through the intersection en route to the emergency.
They were mistaken. A catering truck had suddenly made a left turn into the fire truck’s path. In the back of the vehicle, court documents would later show, an $80-a-day cook named Antonia Roman had just finished warming tortillas for the next stop. Unrestrained by a seat belt, she was making her way back toward her passenger seat when the crash sent the catering truck careening onto its side.
Roman, a 43-year-old mother with a 6-year-old son still at home in Montebello, was thrown from the wreckage. When she regained consciousness, she was a paraplegic. The firefighter behind the wheel, meanwhile, would later discover that, in the course of a few years, the county’s policy for negotiating intersections on emergency calls had changed without his knowledge, requiring him to come to a full stop at the light, rather than to slow to a speed that was safe for the situation.
This week, the Board of Supervisors approved a $3.3 million settlement to Roman in the case.
The incident is significant, and not only because the injuries were so tragic and the settlement so substantial. It also highlights, once again, a complex, life-and-death question that public safety workers and policymakers deal with every day: What is the safest, best way for the driver of an emergency vehicle to negotiate an intersection when lives are in the balance?
In 2008, the last year for which statistics are available, there were 340 collisions involving emergency vehicles on Code 3 calls in California, 116 of them at intersections, according to the California Highway Patrol. The collision that crippled Roman was one of 36 involving emergency vehicles in Los Angeles County intersections that year.
Although the law is clear for civilian drivers—when an emergency vehicle approaches, you stop or pull over and yield the right-of-way—answers are not as definitive for those on the other side of the lights and sirens.
The California Vehicle Code exempts emergency vehicles en route to 911 calls—fire trucks, ambulances, police cars, etc.—from many rules of the road, including those involving red lights. The sole stipulation is that that the vehicle be driven at a speed that’s safe for the road conditions and “with due regard for the safety of all persons using the highway.”
Within those parameters, however, policies vary among agencies and jurisdictions when it comes to balancing the urgency of the call against the need for safety.
“The law says you have to clear the intersection—you can’t just blow through it,” says California Highway Patrol Executive Lt. Kevin Gordon. “You have to make sure it’s safe to proceed and that other motorists are aware of your presence. But there are variances in how best to implement that.”
The policy of the Los Angeles City Fire Department, for instance, is to “stop at all red lights and stop signs . . . and when safe, proceed through the intersection with caution.” The Pasadena Fire Department’s policy does not spell out whether a full stop is required when entering an intersection against a red light. However, the department’s emergency response procedures list “driving against traffic lights” as one of a series of conditions that require “reduced speed and extra caution.”
The county’s policy, meanwhile, has gone back and forth in its attempt to maximize safety, from a 2000 policy that instructed drivers to “slow to a speed which would allow observation of approaching vehicles and pedestrians” to the policy in force at the time of the collision, which told drivers to “stop at all signal controlled intersections that display a red light . . .”
Since then, the policy has again been updated, requiring that the driver simply apply the law with caution and “clear the intersection, lane by lane, until all traffic has yielded the right of way.”
An overview presented to the Board of Supervisors in connection with the Roman case suggests that those shifts may have been confusing. Listed among the factors that “gave rise to [the] accident” was a “failure to be aware of and adhere to the current Department driving policy” on the driver’s part, and a similar failure by his captain to make him aware of the policy.
“We’re trying to learn from what happened,” says Los Angeles County Fire Chief P. Michael Freeman. The challenge, he says, is in balancing the need for swift, potentially life-saving emergency response with the need to navigate traffic safely as public safety workers rush to deliver help.
Traffic safety is crucial, he says, but bringing a heavy truck to a full stop and then getting it up to full speed again takes time when every moment counts. What’s more, he says, stopping at an intersection may confuse other drivers about whether they should stop, go or look for flames around them.
Says the chief: “It’s a question of what’s safest for the public and what’s safest for the people on the other end of the 911 call we’re trying to get to.”
September 15, 2010
Jody Siegler lost her 13-year-old daughter—and found, “in the midst of all this pain and despair,” a path to action.
On Thursday morning, that path will lead her back to the corner of Sunset Boulevard and Cliffwood Drive in Brentwood—back to where her daughter Julia, an 8th-grader at Harvard-Westlake, was run over as she crossed the street to board her school bus.
There, Jody Cukier Seigler will step into her own as an activist, determined to make the world a safer place, one intersection at a time.
Siegler, who had just dropped Julia off and was there when she was struck by two cars, will join police and elected officials for the kickoff of a safety campaign called “Slow Down for Julia.” She’ll honor and thank the young people who jumped into action within hours of Julia’s death and set in motion the safety campaign.
“I feel very, very transformed. I’ve been given a responsibility,” Siegler said in an interview, reflecting on all that has happened in the difficult months since her daughter’s death on Feb. 26.
She knows that she wants to set up a memorial in Julia’s name. She knows that she wants to crusade for strict enforcement of speed limits and for better visibility on streets where overgrown vegetation can obscure sightlines and block signage. And she knows that drawing public attention to her family’s personal tragedy is a necessary part of fostering the civic engagement required to get such changes made.
The horrific accident that claimed Julia’s life occurred after she stepped out into traffic against a red light and was struck by two cars, one after the other. No charges were filed against either driver.
Despite all Jody Siegler has had to endure, she is deeply focused on what others have done to honor her daughter. She rattles off name after name of those who have stepped up, from the students who created a Facebook memorial and painted a purple “Slow Down for Julia” bus bench to the rabbi at University Synagogue to the people at her local print shop.
“People behaving impressively is really worthy of our attention,” she said.
Her ongoing relationship with her daughter’s classmates and friends has been a revelation—and cause for hope about perhaps helping to spawn a new generation of activism around the tragedy of Julia’s death.
“The emotional DNA of her peer group has been changed forever” by the accident, she said.
“Kids still come to my house. I’m amazed that they come through my front door. They’re brave. I applaud them.”
Along with her husband, Scott Siegler, a media investor, she’s continually struck by the connections their daughter forged during her short life. “We knew that she was extraordinary. We didn’t know quite how far and wide it went.”
For herself, there are “the good days and the bad days.” She has a hard time sleeping; early wakeups are a challenge. And she is steadfastly working her way through all the boxes of letters she received after the accident.
“I have been diligently replying to every single person,” she said. She created a card, adorned with photos of Julia in different stages of her life and incorporated into it a single shoelace (purple, Julia’s favorite color) and the words: “One purple shoelace to remember her spirit, one missing to remember why.”
She’s still working out exactly where to focus her energies. “Where will it be most effective? What’s biting off more than I can chew?” But she likes the idea of small actions adding up to big results. “It has to be individual acts for getting things done,” she said.
Donations, including those raised by Julia’s classmates’ sale of $3 purple bracelets reading “Slow Down for Julia,” could ripple out in an ever-widening circle—resulting in improvements not just at Sunset and Cliffwood but beyond.
“I told the boys that with the money we raise—what if we go help another corner?” Siegler said. “What if Julia and what happened here helped a corner somewhere else?”
Capt. Nancy Lauer, commanding officer of LAPD’s West Traffic Division, said she admires Siegler’s willingness to step into the public arena in the interests in improving public safety, especially for schoolchildren.
“She’s suffered a tremendous loss. I have a great deal of respect for her courage and fortitude,” Lauer said.
A one-time movie marketing executive, Siegler, now an interior design and remodeling consultant, knows what it is to find that “relatable crumb” that hooks the public’s interest in a project. And she knows that her own loss has forever altered the trajectory of her life.
“My purpose has changed,” she said.
And like the Little Red Hen in the nursery tale, who industriously makes bread while trying to recruit helpers, she’s going out into the world looking for those willing to do the work that will make a difference.
“The world is either people baking the bread or eating the bread,” she said. “I’m looking for a few good bakers.”
August 10, 2010
The Board of Supervisors made a down payment Tuesday on an ambitious plan to link all of the region’s police, fire and emergency workers under a single, shared digital communications umbrella.
The Los Angeles Regional Interoperable Communication System—LA-RICS for short—aims to become the crucial communications infrastructure that connects more than 34,000 first responders and allied personnel in the Los Angeles region.
LA-RICS is a Joint Powers Authority set up in 2009 by the county and city of Los Angeles and 81 other local cities. The new voice and data radio system, to be linked with fiber optic cable, microwave antennae and other links, would replace the current patchwork that often makes communication between law enforcement and fire agencies difficult.
The new system should also make communication possible between dozens of fire and police agencies that gather to fight large-scale disasters, from 9/11 to Hurricane Katrina to Southern California’s large scale fires and earthquakes.
“When we have a disaster in this area, we’ll be able to communicate with anybody,” Scott Poster, a deputy county fire chief who is LA-RICS’ interim director, said in an interview following the meeting.
The system, to be designed and built over the next three to six years, may eventually cost more than $500 million, according to a consultants’ report. Officials hope to obtain federal grants and other funding streams to pay for the system.
The Board’s action unanimously approved a first year’s budget of $17.76 million. Of that, $10 million is slated for early initial spending on the communications infrastructure, from radio gear to software. The remaining $7.76 million is earmarked for staff costs, consultants’ and experts’ fees and office space.
Supervisors’ approval of the down payment came with cost-sharing questions. They had been expecting a similar $7.6 million appropriation for staff costs from the city of Los Angeles, the plan’s other major partner. But city funding hasn’t materialized yet, leaving the county, at the moment, the sole provider.
“We’re being asked to pay the whole sum from our resources, when the city has resources and should be contributing,” Supervisor Michael D. Antonovich noted, to Poster and county Chief Executive Officer William T Fujioka. “How do you plan to ensure that we don’t subsidize the city of Los Angeles?”
Antonovich added an amendment to the measure instructing Fujioka to question Los Angeles officials in the next 30 days whether it plans to contribute funding for staffing and report back to the board.
April 29, 2010
The big rains of winter mean a big explosion of vegetation come spring—which can mean big trouble when the inevitable wildfires hit Southern California. So homeowners in “wildland areas” can expect a visit soon from the Los Angeles County Fire Department, which is beginning brush clearance inspections of more than 39,000 homes on Saturday. (Inspections in coastal areas start June 1.) To stay on the safe side, check out the county’s brush clearance guidelines, download your own “personal wildfire action plan” prepared by the fire department as part of its Ready! Set! Go! program, and check out these videos. And then click on “A Road Map to Fire Safety: How to Create Defensible Space in the Santa Monica Mountains,” a new guide from the Fire Safe Alliance.