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It’s a beautiful Saturday morning in the Mission, as the group bursts into the classroom at Everett Middle School. They’re wearing yellow hard hats and reflective vests. Strands of orange, yellow, black and green ribbon flutter behind them in the breeze. The first person they encounter is a young man covered in blood, running toward them.

“Aaaaaaaaugh!” says the man, waving his arms. “Help meeeeeeeeeeeeeeee!”
This is a sign that he is probably alright.

Some 104 years ago an earthquake in San Francisco killed several thousand people. Twenty-one years ago, another earthquake killed sixty-three. Twice a year, on a date that roughly corresponds with the anniversary of each of these quakes, a group of trained volunteers known as NERT (the Neighborhood Emergency Response Team) gets together with the fire department and practices saving the city.

The San Francisco Fire Department has 19 trucks, 42 engines, one fire boat, 2 rescue squads, 11 chiefs, and about 290 firefighters on duty at any time. A substantial number of those firefighters live in more far-flung neighborhoods like the Excelsior. The most critical time after any disaster is known as “the golden hour,” and the idea behind drills like this one is that a group of well-trained people can move through their own neighborhood the first hour after a disaster, searching buildings, performing basic first aid and triage on victims, shutting off gas, and putting out small fires, long before outside rescue can get it into gear to come and save them.

Someone ties a green ribbon around the arm of the noisy victim. The group divides in two, and begins to move around the room. One of them kneels down in front of a gore-covered teenager, slumped over in the corner, “Can you touch your nose?” the would-be rescuer asks. The teenager stares back at him, uncomprehendingly. An orange ribbon is wrapped around his arm, and the group moves on.

“All of you victims, could you raise your hands?” says the fireman supervising the drill. Hands go up. “Alright!” says the fireman. “You all tagged different hands on each victim. That means the same person could be triaged twice, and you lose valuable time.” The group looks chagrined.

“Okay. Who in here was triaged correctly?” Four hands go up.

“Aw, look,” says the fireman, looking down disappointedly at the fifth. “You just killed this guy!”

Meanwhile, Nora Matulich is cleaning up the makeup area. “We’re short on victims today,” she says. Given the sway that zombie flash mobs have intermittently held over the city, it seems surprising that fewer than ten people have shown up on a Saturday morning to have free coffee and danishes,  then have gore and miscellaneous shrapnel embedded in them followed by lying on the floor for an hour or two screaming for a good cause. NERT’s tiny publicity budget may have something to do with that.

“Oooh!” says Maxine Fasulis, a public defender for Alameda County and a member of NERT’s Advisory Board. She is rummaging through a cardboard box of miscellaneous objects that Matulich has collected to embed in people. “Nora once stuck a beautiful piece of glass into my arm,” she says, nostalgically. “The hard part was getting the rescuers not to pull it out. If an object is embedded in someone, you need leave it in, or else they could bleed out.”


Outside, other NERTs move through the neighborhood, flipping over signs placed there earlier that day to show that they’ve checked the block for leaking gas mains. They relay their status to Guido, a man with a ham radio who relays any news about problems too big for NERT to handle on to the fire department.

Another group frees a battered, armless mannequin from underneath a pile of rubble. The man assigned to monitor the mannequin’s vital signs during rescue is wearing a crash helmet instead of the standard yellow NERT safety hat. “Mother?” he says, holding the mannequin’s head between his hands and looking tenderly into its grimy plastic face. “Mother, everything is going to be alright.”

A few feet away, two women practicing their fire extinguisher skills are enveloped in a cloud of white flame suppressant, and coughing. The wind has changed, and they accidentally sprayed directly into its path. “No one said this is pretty,” says Lt. Anita Parately. “We’re going to be rescuing people.”

The original NERT formed in the Marina after Loma Prieta. Now most neighborhoods in San Francisco have one, though some are more organized than others. The transitory nature of San Francisco means that most NERTs with direct experience of an earthquake have since moved elsewhere.

“I was in Candlestick Park, watching the bleachers move up and down in an “S” curve,” says Fasuslis. “When I got out, I just headed in the direction of that enormous fireball in the Marina.” She pauses. “If we had every citizen in San Francisco trained so that they had supplies just for themselves for 72 hours, that would be great.”

Next to us, the armless dummy has finally been freed. “Mother!” the man in the crash helmet squeals with delight. Then he joins the rest of the team in reburying her, in preparation for the next group.

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Heather Smith covers a beat that spans health, food, and the environment, as well as shootings, stabbings, various small fires, and shouting matches at public meetings. She is a 2007 Middlebury Fellow in Environmental Journalism and a contributor to the book Infinite City.

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  1. Hi Heather,

    Thanks for attending our drill. And thanks also for writing such an awesome article which I hope encourages everyone in the Mission to take the training!

    Maxine Fasulis

  2. Thank you to Heather Smith and Mission Loc@l for your terrific coverage of San Francisco NERT. Heather’s work in this and in her other articles on NERT is insightful and honest.

    When you cover NERT, you help encourage those whom live or work in San Francisco to join NERT and get better prepared. For that, again, we thank you.