Danville Express

Cover Story - April 20, 2007

When disaster strikes

Emergency Services Manager says the key is to have a plan

by Dolores Fox Ciardelli

Things were quiet that morning in the county's Emergency Operations Center, recalled Greg Gilbert, as they quietly went about their business. Suddenly a number of warning systems from Tosco Refinery in Martinez started reporting to the center and all hell broke loose.

"We were doing a normal day's work when we got notification of some kind of fire and explosion at the refinery," said Gilbert, remembering that day in February 1999. Gilbert is a former Sheriff's Department deputy and was assigned at that time to the county Emergency Services Division.

First reports told of up to 10 people killed in an explosion at the refinery, said Gilbert, but in the end it was four men killed and one horribly burned as highly volatile naphtha ignited a fireball that surged from a pipe they were repairing.

"It was very chaotic when it was first reported to us," Gilbert recalled. "There was a lack of complete information."

The press was clamoring for information to give the public, especially concerned that a warning needed to be issued. Politicians were demanding answers to give their constituents.

"It took a number of hours to determine the scope of the problem, how many were killed or injured," Gilbert recalled.

Gilbert, 51, spent 26 years in law enforcement with the Sheriff's Department. He saw floods, as well as train cars de-railed, chemical spills and a small airplane go down.

He also spent 13 years on the county's SWAT team.

"I was assistant commander of the SWAT team," he recalled. "Our busiest year was 1995 - we had 20 incidents."

All in all, Gilbert is a good man to have around in emergencies. That's why the Town of Danville hired him to be its new Emergency Services Manager. He also knows the area because he served as Danville's police chief from 1999 to 2003.

"The federal government is mandating that communities have disaster and emergency response training," said Gilbert.

Danville had split those duties among its administrators but decided to create a new position so one person could focus on preparing for disasters and coordinate with the other agencies in the area. San Ramon also has hired an Emergency Services Manager.

"Think what has transpired since the events of Sept. 11, and factor in Hurricanes Rita and Katrina, and the tsunami," Gilbert said. "We're at the level of thinking: Are we doing everything we can do to be prepared?"

Gilbert said the three disasters with the greatest chance of occurring in this community are chemical spills, fires and earthquakes.

The county has four large refineries and chemical plants, he noted.

"Trucks are going up and down 680 freeway 24 hours a day," he said.

"The county has a Telephone Emergency Notification System, TENS," he added. In the case of a spill, people would probably be advised to stay in place, with their windows closed and air conditioners and heaters turned off to prevent pulling in air from the outside.

Wildfires are seasonal, mostly a threat in the hot dry months.

"We know that July through November, the grass is going to turn brown," Gilbert said. "We can do preventative measures."

Plans include evacuation procedures, a possibility for both wildfire and earthquake disasters. Gilbert coordinates with the school district, the San Ramon Fire Protection District and Contra Costa County. They have "pre-staged assets" such as emergency blankets, water and cots, as well as kennels to care for pets.

Earthquakes are impossible to predict but Gilbert noted that most housing around here was built after 1970 and is sturdy.

"California is a great place to live but it has its faults," he quipped.

People must make their homes disaster resistant, taking precautions such as locking down the water heater, he said, and bolting heavy bookcases to walls.

"You are more likely to get hurt by falling debris than collapsed buildings," he said.

Disaster supplies should be kept in a place that will likely survive a major earthquake, such as a shed in the yard.

"Keep a change of clothing at work," he advised. "Put old clothes and comfortable shoes in a gym bag. And put a pair of gloves in the bag - windows will break, wood will crack. Wearing gloves is huge, to avoid cuts and infection."

Gilbert said he keeps emergency supplies in his car and parks it outside at night so it will not be trapped inside a collapsing garage. He is a lifetime resident of Contra Costa County and lives in Pleasant Hill with his wife, a part time school teacher. They have two children.

Families should evaluate their homes and make sure they have a plan to evacuate and a way to get down from the second floor, perhaps purchasing a folding ladder.

"Once a year talk to your family and remind them of the plan," Gilbert said. "The goal is survival for yourself and for your family."

He advises keeping a fire extinguisher in the home, making sure it is charged, and that everyone knows where it is.

"Most fires start in the kitchen and the garage, maybe a bag of popcorn in the microwave or oily rags in the garage," he said. "It happens more often than you'd think."

He said to notice exit signs in places such as movie theaters, explaining, "Most people try to go out the way they came in."

"We never know when disaster will strike," Gilbert said. "The bad thing about disasters is there is no way of preparing. It's very difficult to disaster-proof our region."

"But we can be disaster resistant to mitigate issues, to help you survive," he added.

He said terrorists are not a big threat although the San Ramon Valley is in the San Francisco Bay Area and home to Chevron, AT&T and high profile individuals who could be targets. Also, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, which develops nuclear weapons and studies microbial diseases such as plague and botulism, is in our back yard.

Each person and family needs to plan to help themselves for the first 72 to 96 hours after a catastrophe so government agencies can help the ones who need it most: those who are injured.

The San Ramon Valley fire district offers two programs to help residents prepare for emergencies. Under the Personal Emergency Preparedness (PEP) program, someone will come to talk to a group of neighbors about how best to be prepared.

It also holds Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) classes from 6-9 p.m. on Thursday evenings for six weeks to train people to be community responders. Each series can accommodate 40-50 people. To sign up for PEP or CERT, call Danielle Bell at the fire district at 838-6697 or e-mail dbell@srvfire.ca.gov.

"We have over 200 people trained as community responders - how to prepare for emergencies, use fire extinguishers, light search and rescue, about communications, light medical issues," Gilbert reported.

The fire district has a map noting where the CERT-trained residents live.

"I'm confident the people in Danville are going to help their neighbors," Gilbert said.

Meanwhile he is coordinating with the county and the school district to make plans for each eventuality. Each member of the staff of the Town of Danville is going through 40-hour training, and 50 percent have already completed the course.

"Town employees have responsibility as disaster service members, from the clerk at the front counter to the town manager," he said.

In an emergency they will help put plans into action, such as opening shelters, providing bulldozers when needed, and ascertaining water needs.

"With each disaster, there are lessons learned," said Gilbert.

The lesson from the Oakland Hills firestorm in 1991 was to make sure that fire departments all use the same coupling on their fire hydrants so they can give mutual aid.

The so-called World Series Earthquake that took place at 5:04 p.m., Oct. 17, 1989, just before the start of the third game between the San Francisco Giants and the Oakland A's, showed the importance of advance planning.

"Candlestick was evacuated by the security that was there - because they had a plan," recalled Gilbert.

"If we do have a plan and people have been trained in it, after the initial panic they will settle into their roles," he said. "It's best to get the community back on its feet. The infrastructure needs to get back online."

He said a big part of his role is communications systems, noting the increase in technologies available in the last few years. He's had to build two systems of disaster plans, one on computers and the other that is basically a binder and a No. 2 pencil in case Internet connections are lost.

The East Bay Regional Communication System project is seeking funds to make communications between Contra Costa and Alameda counties interoperable.

"Locally we're in good shape," Gilbert said. "We trade radios."

When disaster strikes, a hierarchy is followed in asking for help if the town finds the emergency is too big for its best-laid plans.

"If we are overwhelmed, we will ask the county," he explained. "If they are overwhelmed they ask the region, then the state, then the feds."

Gilbert said his stint as Danville police chief was a highlight of his career. Under his watch the police added school resource officers to the high school campuses, plus he standardized procedures for policing public events. He said although Danville is not a high crime area, it still has issues, such as dealing with the young population, that can keep the Police Department busy.

Gilbert's new role is similar to the one he had at the county Emergency Operations Center that grim February day in 1999 when the pipeline at Tosco exploded.

"Being a police officer, your initial reaction is to want to go to the scene because that is what police officers do," Gilbert explained. "But our responsibility was to coordinate the responses. We had first responders, police and fire, who responded directly to the scene, saving lives and preventing further injury. We were the people behind the scene.

"The most important thing is getting a situation resolved quickly with the least amount of injuries," he continued. "We want everything to be back to normal as quickly as possible. That's the role I'm going to play."

In case of emergency

Source: Town of Danville


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