When we hear “first responders” we think of firefighters and police officers. Take a closer look through the filter of any major disaster, though, and the first to respond are actually those who are in closest proximity: neighbors and passers-by. Whether the landslide in Oso, Hurricane Sandy, or a local house fire, time and again neighbors are the first on the scene.
But are our neighbors ready for an emergency? The American Red Cross tells us to have an emergency kit ready so we can survive without services for three days, but what happens after that? And what happens if you need medical attention or can’t find your cat?
After the Nisqually earthquake in 2001, West Seattle’s 13 community groups became concerned about the peninsula’s isolation and limited access to immediate emergency services. They spoke with police and fire leaders and discovered that, although those departments had internal operational plans, there was no plan in place to support citizens in the immediate aftermath of a civil or natural disaster. In fact, their initial responsibility was to travel through the affected areas and assess the damage without stopping to help, except in life-threatening situations. Only after a completed assessment would they be available to provide services.
Five years later, the Hanukkah eve windstorm knocked out power in our entire region, in some cases for more than a week. People wanted to know: How widespread was the outage; when would power be restored in their neighborhood; where could they get cash from an ATM; were any restaurants open; who had cell service? Those who could, turned to local resources like westseattleblog.com, but with electricity out and cell towers inoperable few had access to the information being provided. The City had supported block-level organizing, but nothing was in place to knit neighborhoods together.
After the storm, a West Seattle group formed to address the issue of immediate disaster response. They wanted to create something that would be local, neighborhood based and flexible and would serve as an information center immediately after a large-scale disaster. They designed and, over time, implemented a disaster information hub system for West Seattle. As word spread about the hub concept, the City of Seattle brought together organizers from West Seattle, Queen Anne, Wallingford and later Capitol Hill to work together and support one another in expanding it. With one-time funding from the City Council and other small grants, the all-volunteer Emergency Preparedness Hub Network has grown citywide and now includes 56 total hubs, including 19 at P-patch locations.
Each hub is created and staffed by volunteers. It is hosted in a neighborhood-based, easily accessible location. The hub’s organizing mission is to provide information in the gap between the onset of a civil disaster and the time official first responders can take over. The volunteer core team of hub captain and two to six others coordinates the work of each hub. In preparation for any disaster, they conduct surveys of their service area to determine where potential resources can be found and implemented. Local organizations and businesses are asked if they have the capacity to provide shelter, water, refrigeration, power generation, as well as other services or equipment that they are willing to commit in a crisis.
City of Seattle. For a large PDF version, click here.
When disaster strikes, each hub will operate autonomously but will be able to communicate with other hubs, social service, and city agencies via ground mobile radio service. This service requires an FCC license and enables two-way communication over short distances, somewhat like Citizens’ Band (CB).
Hubs will know where local shelters are, where food or water is available, where medical services are being provided, or where to report missing persons. Each hub will also serve as a conduit for resource or skill sharing. Volunteers can go to a hub and be matched with ongoing projects (e.g. removing debris, traffic management, or resource logging) or to report available resources (e.g. “my house has electricity and can be used as a charging station for electronics,” “I have a snow blower,” or “I’m grilling in my backyard for anyone who wants to come by”).
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