Covering the Police is a collaboration with UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism.

When the big one comes — a 7.5 earthquake on the San Andreas fault, for instance — what should you do?

Generally, said Mark Hernandez, who runs the Auxiliary Law Enforcement Response Team — known by its acronym, ALERT — everyone’s best self kicks in, and residents “usually become helpful to their friends and neighbors after a disaster.”

But others have taken the next step, either by going through the Neighborhood Emergency Response Team’s training or becoming part of ALERT.  

“ALERT is designed to assist law enforcement post-disaster,” said Hernandez, who retired from SFPD in 2012. On a recent Saturday, Hernandez and four other officers helped during a day of training for 30 volunteers, who ranged in age from 16 to 80.

The one-day training involved four simulated scenarios. The volunteers had already been through more than 20 hours of  NERT instruction and eight hours of the ALERT course. The yearly drills, like the one in early November, are required in order for people to remain certified — a distinction held by 200 residents.

To simulate what happens after a 7.5 earthquake on the San Andreas fault, the 30 ALERT members met at night and were divided into groups of eight to 10 people. Each group faced four scenarios: a non-injury traffic accident, dealing with an unruly mob, responding to a person trapped in a building and performing CPR on someone in cardiac arrest.

In one scenario, using the Police Academy building, the volunteers searched for a person trapped in debris.

The ALERT volunteers examined the building before entering. “No gases,” 16-year old Blake Carter said, looking left and right as he assessed the building.

The members locked arms and entered the building in pairs, surveying the damage. They divided the group into two sectors of the building, “left search” and “right search,” placing their hands along the wall and leaving no door unopened.

“Hello, anyone need help here?” one older man yelled into a men’s restroom.

“Anybody in here?” asked a woman.

While walking through long hallways and a dark gymnasium, they came upon their trapped person, a male cadet who was injured. He was being consoled by a female cadet.

“Is he going to be alright?” she cried.

The members stayed with her as someone calls the authorities to assist. And one male member in his 30s took off his ALERT-branded jacket to cover the cold cadet.  Another female volunteer supported his head.

In this simulated scenario, the ALERT volunteers huddle around an injured person, a PAL Cadet, and provide him with aid until police arrive. Photo by Luis Hernandez.

For some, the scenario hit close to home. Nancy Sabaiigaea, a single mother, remembered the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, a 6.9 quake that killed 67 people and caused more than $5 billion in property damage.

“I did not know what to do,” she said. “This time I feel more confident.”

Although ALERT was founded in 2012, San Franciscans have proven to be “spontaneous volunteers,” said Hernandez.

The 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake brought many community members, especially in the Marina district, out to assist the fire department.

“Those spontaneous volunteers came out and they started helping pull fire hoses and did whatever they could,” Hernandez said, “and whatever the Fire Department personnel directed them to do to help.” 

This organic volunteerism led to the creation of the NERT disaster training, developed by the San Francisco Fire Department. This same model was then used as a way to provide more training, and led to the ALERT program.

In an actual earthquake, the ALERT volunteers will be there to assist officers, acting as what Hernandez calls “ a force multiplier.” “They could have one or two officers and half a dozen ALERT volunteers to secure those resource locations,” he said.

The SFPD also uses the volunteers in other aspects of policing such as high-priority missing person cases, and helping the SFPD reach out to the public for help solving other crimes.

Carol Kunkle, a volunteer since 2012, said she and other volunteers helped to find the three suspects who allegedly killed a homeless person.

“We as volunteers went down to Market and Montgomery and passed out leaflets,” she said, adding that there were about 20 volunteers in total.

Kunkle, who was a part of ALERT’s first graduating class in 2013, believes deeply in the power of the program.

“I went to the classes and I thought, ‘This is pretty nice,’” she said. “Whenever we have a new class coming in, you can almost guarantee that I will be there.”

Commander David Lazar, who heads up the Community Engagement Division, made a brief appearance at the early November drill and spoke about the importance of the program in context of the Oct. 1 shooting in Las Vegas, where 58 people were killed and 546 were injured at a country music festival. 

“These drills are so important,” Lazar said. “It’s not a matter of if it’s going to happen, it’s a matter of just when it’s going to happen.”

Wondering what to do in an emergency? We sent a reporter to do the NERT training and she wrote up a lot of good advice.