Marina District after Loma Prieta. Photo taken by J.K. Nakata, United States Geological Survey

Given that we’ve all been shaken up by a 4.5 earthquake at 2:39 a.m., we thought we would rerun our series on disaster training that first ran in April, 2010. 

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On a brisk, cold night in the Mission, a group of neighborhood residents gather to discuss whether or not it is appropriate to drink water out of the toilet tank.

“That’s for hand-washing only,” says firefighter Patty Yuen. “No drinking that stuff.”

“Ice?” says a voice from the crowd.

“Very good!” says Yuen. “You’ve been reading the manual.”

When the next major earthquake hits San Francisco, these are the people who have made a sincere promise to dig their neighbors out of the rubble. NERT, San Francisco’s Neighborhood Emergency Response Training, has its origins in the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake. In some footage shown at the beginning of class, a line of runners in perfectly spaced jogging formation run uphill with what appears, to the untutored eye, to be a million miles of firehose. “Those people aren’t firemen in plainclothes,” says one of the instructors. “And I can guarantee you that none of them thought, as children, ‘I want to carry a huge hose down Fillmore Street.’ But when a disaster happens, you want to help.”

Over the past few decades, research conducted by those in the beautifully named field of “disaster sociology” has increasingly taken the view that ordinary civilians are often the best first responders to a disaster. They know the neighborhood, they know each other, they know where to get supplies. And, unlike a disaster relief team coming from outside, they are at the site at the most critical time for any search and rescue mission: the first hour after a disaster occurs (also known as “the golden hour”). Local writers like Philip Fradkin and Rebecca Solnit have argued that city residents, when confronted with sudden, overwhelming catastrophe, have often done a better job of saving themselves than more official groups charged with the task.

NERT, and its parent organization, CERT (Community Emergency Response Training) have their origins in earthquakes, but the training varies across the United States in accordance with what disasters a community is likely to confront. Training follows the same core curriculum, but who it is dispensed to also varies from region to region. Los Angeles only trains those who can pass a full background check. Other regions charge for the training they administer.

The source of its funding varies (once it was FEMA, now it’s paid for by the city) but San Francisco has so far — for free — taught more than 20,000 people how to bandage wounds, disinfect water, search and mark buildings, mark people with colored ink for medical triage, and lift rubble without muscle strain. The only requirements are the ability and willingness to show up for the 20 hours of training. For that reason, perhaps, the crowd in the community room of the Valencia Gardens housing project is one of the most diverse group by any matrix — age, ethnicity, class — that this reporter has ever seen in a single room in the Mission. Over the next six weeks, Mission Local will be covering, and summarizing, this group’s education in the field of disaster.

“We’ve done the calculations based on Loma Prieta,” the instructor says, an image of a large fireball on the screen behind him. “In a major earthquake with winds of 10 miles per hour, we’ll see 71 large fires, 40 major rescue operations. We’ll need 273 engines.

“We don’t have those,” he says, flatly. “So where are we going to get the help?”

“From us!” yells a voice in the back.

“Right,” says Yuen. “So, in an earthquake-related emergency, what are the three most valuable things that you can have close at hand?”

The room is silent.

“Okay,” says Yuen. “We’ve got a ways to go.”

The answers turn out to be: scissors (You can use them to make bandages for people out of whatever clothes they happen to be wearing) duct tape (bandages, slings, can be used to tape plastic over broken windows) and garbage bags (weather poncho, window covering, improvised toilet.) Everyone sits quietly, absorbing that last part. “You can just throw it over the neighbor’s fence to get rid of it,” says the instructor. “Just kidding. Bury it. Also: hand sanitizer will be a good idea.”

The rest of the first lecture ranges from the structural:  If you live in an old home, have the foundation, roof and chimney checked — to the slightly paranoid — “I call it ‘earthquake eyes,” the instructor says. “Every time you’re out, just look for potential hazards and escape routes. Like when I’m at a movie theater — I always just notice all of the exits.”

There’s also the the social — make a family disaster plan, designate an out-of-state person to be a contact point for questions about you, if something happens change your voice mail message to one that says where you are and how you can be found.

A surprising amount of the first class focuses on the issue of shoes. “You aren’t going to be rescuing anyone without shoes,” says Yuen. “Keep one spare pair of tennis shoes at work, one in the car, and another tied to a leg of your bed so that you can find them if an earthquake happens at night,” she says. “Keep them wrapped in plastic so that they won’t be full of glass when you do find them.”

She adds that in addition to home emergency kits, every child in the city’s public schools should have a backpack filled with emergency supplies that is stored at the school.

“How many of your kids go to schools that have done that?” Out of the crowd of forty, a single hand goes up. Yuen sighs.

“We live in the Pacific Ring of Fire, a chain of underwater volcanoes,” she says. “There is a 67 percent chance that we’ll have an earthquake along the San Andreas fault of 6.6 or greater by 2030. The Hayward fault is supposed to go every 132 years. It’s been 146 years since we’ve had a major earthquake there. So how do we deal with this?”

“Move to Minnesota!” shouts a voice from the audience.

“Right, enjoy those cold winters?” says Yuen, cheerfully. “No.”

Disaster Training, Part 1: What to Have on Hand

NERT Disaster Training, Part 2: Gas, Fires Rescues

NERT Disaster Training, Part 3: Triage

NERT Disaster Training, Part 4: Searches, Rescue, Axes.

Keep coming back and if you haven’t already, support Mission Local’s reporting. If you have, thank you.

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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. NERT is out of touch with migration patterns, people move around the city. The program uses neighborhood residency as a way of vetting potential participants. It is a strategy to limit enrollment because, as noted by a reader here, training occurs infrequently. It severely detriments NERT’s effectiveness.

    How many people both live and work in the neighborhood all day every day? Neighborhood specific training programs cannot assume a person with residency is there all day, nor that someone who does not have an apartment there is not.

    Bottom line: NERT exists so the city can say it has that rather than for practical purposes.

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  2. There are now 512 disaster mitigation, preparedness, response and recovery training videos embedded in the Just In Time Disaster Training Video Library with new videos being added on a daily basis.

    The purpose of this FREE on-line library is to provide a single, easy to search source in which individuals, agencies and organizations can access Just In Time Disaster Training Videos.

    The library can be accessed at the following web site:

    Share access to this unique disaster training resource with others by linking your web site to the library today.

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