January 23, 2019

County To Topanga: Do You Really Want to Live Here?


On Saturday, July 11, Los Angeles County led a fire drill for the edification of Topanga citizens, the first such County drill in Topanga since 2006 . Five engine companies joined patrols from three sheriff’s stations, Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky’s aides, the Topanga Coalition for Emergency Preparedness (T-CEP) and the Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) to stage a scary scenario.


County To Topanga:  Do You Really Want to Live Here?

Sgt. Eric Fox from EOB monitors the LARCOPP (Los Angeles Regional Common Operating Picture Program) that tracks its field units and shares the information with other agencies working on the incident. The information from this system is shared with several fire and police departments in the county.

It was also a cautionary tale. Though many Topangans participated, many didn’t. And judging by those who called the T-CEP hotline, many didn’t know where to go or what to do during an evacuation. Most alarming, as they were debriefed, fire captains and sheriff’s patrols warned that emergency vehicles cannot easily access many roads in Topanga because they are too narrow, there are not enough turnarounds and too many illegally parked cars block access.

The details of the drill script were eerily familiar. After three years of drought and three days of Santa Ana winds, a fire was said to have started in the brush north of dirt Mulholland, two miles east of Topanga Canyon Boulevard about a mile from its intersection with Santa Maria Road. That’s not so far from the point where an actual blaze started in May, quickly put down with the help of calm winds and a rapid response. In the drill scenario, Topanga wasn’t so lucky. The wind-driven flames barreled out of control toward Santa Maria Creek, the Garapito watershed and ultimately Pacific Heights and Pacific Palisades. In this hypothetical situation, the LACFD ordered the evacuation of much of Topanga.

The Canyon came alive with activity. An Incident Command Center was set up at Topanga Elementary School, T-CEP’s Emergency Operations Center (EOC) opened behind the Christian Science Church on Old Topanga Canyon Road and a Red Cross Shelter went into action at Topanga Christian Fellowship Church. Fire and law enforcement saturated the Canyon and a Disaster Assessment Team checked out hypothetical damage.

Getting the Word Out

The drill was planned to maximize citizen participation. The LACFD sent out a letter in June announcing an “evacuation exercise…based on the community evacuation plans outlined in the Topanga Disaster Survival Guide.” The LACFD planned to stage evacuation of zones 3, 4, 6 and 7. In the Survival Guide, the County assigned zone numbers for the first time to areas based on Thomas Guide grids to accelerate evacuations. The idea was so successful that soon the LACFD will divide the entire county into zones. Zone maps will be in every engine and patrol car during an emergency. That could be a lifesaver during the real deal.

After the letter, came e-mails. Neighborhood network leaders sent a heads-up to their groups, urging everyone to participate in the drill. Unfortunately, not everyone in Topanga is part of a neighborhood network. If you aren’t, you can help organize your neighborhood by contacting nn@t-cep.org.


County To Topanga:  Do You Really Want to Live Here?

A family signs in at the Community Safe Area (CSA)setup at the Community House during the July 11 drill exercise.

Finally, at 9 a.m. on July 11, LA County planned to reach every Topanga home, using the Emergency Mass Notification System, its new automatic emergency call system run by Alert LA County. But in the drill’s first glitch, not everyone in Topanga received the call. The fire department placed the blame on overloaded phone providers. Of course, in a real emergency, communications could be stressed even more. On hand as an observer, Supervisor Yaroslavsky’s Senior Aide Susan Nissman, said people “can’t depend on a phone call.” LACFD Community Services Rep Maria Grycan agreed. “If this was for real, even if sheriff’s deputies hadn’t come by, they need to leave—self evacuate.” All land lines are automatically registered on the system, but if you want to get a message on cells or e-mail, you need to register at Alert.lacounty.gov. The July 11 call stressed that this was only a drill and asked residents “to participate by stopping by their closest Community Safety Area (CSA) or Neighborhood Survival Area (NSA)…this morning between 9 a.m. and noon.”

No Way Out

The scenario drove the action, because evacuees faced gridlock on Topanga Canyon Boulevard, which is a real concern. If people are unable to leave during a disaster, they would need to do the next best thing—evacuate to their local CSA or failing that, to a NSA. There are nine CSAs in Topanga, designated by the County as the safest places to evacuate inside the Canyon if it’s impossible to get out to a Regional Shelter. NSAs are next on the chain of safety—areas chosen for being better than staying in place in your home as a fire approaches, or diving into a ditch. You can find your closest CSA or NSA by checking Chapter 14 of the Survival Guide. If you do not have a Guide, follow the links on the t-cep.org Web site to download one.

Many Topangans did find their way to their local CSA or NSA that morning. Before they came, some followed the sound advice of emergency specialists: have an emergency plan and practice it; communicate with family members through an out-of-state contact; get ready to evacuate with a go kit, cell phone, radios, purse, wallet, computer backup, animals, loved ones and important possessions; wear cotton or Nomex and an N95 mask (available at Home Depot) and get your house ready by following the advice on p. 65 your Survival Guide.

Thirty CERT volunteers took a count of those who showed up, while nine Arson Watch members served as backup. Thirty to 40 fire personnel were assigned to the CSAs to answer questions and about 20 sheriff’s deputies in patrol cars roved the NSAs.

The EOC in Action

Back at the EOC, volunteers answered dozens of calls on the (310) 455-3000 hotline, many from people reporting they didn’t get the County call or asking where their NSAs and CSAs were. One older woman had no Survival Guide, didn’t know her zone, CSA or NSA and had no computer access to check for the information online. Wendy Kline, a new hotline member answering phones for the first time, admitted she had been clueless, too. “I’m glad I’m here. I just found out where I’m supposed to go!” The phones at the hotline also went down periodically due to an overload on Verizon. The lesson for a real emergency: be persistent and keep trying.


County To Topanga:  Do You Really Want to Live Here?

Red Cross shift supervisor, David Tuckman (right), clarifies a map location with a disaster volunteer.

Meanwhile the rest of the EOC was buzzing. Andrea Makshanoff served as EOC manager, gathering information from the County, T-CEP’s Plans and Intelligence group and the Radio Team’s ham radios, and passing it on to the Public Information Officer, Lindajo Loftus, who would put verified information up on the T-CEP Web site and send it to operators in the hotline room. When the internal computer network went down, word was passed the old-fashioned way, by writing news on the big boards. At the top of each hour, heads of the teams met and planned strategy. The hams sent top-of-the-hour reports to folks with a Family Service Radio (FRS). That’s a walkie talkie for short range that can be more reliable with less interference than its granddaddy, the CB radio. You can pick one up through Amazon.com for about $30.

The 30 or so volunteers answering the alert at the EOC included Susan Clark, head of the Animal Rescue Team, the group that offered free pet chipping at the County’s recent Services Fair. She wants everyone to know that the team offers free chipping on an ongoing basis, including a place on the national registry. There will be a small fee to register internationally. Just call her at (310) 455-7268 for more information. Animal Rescue will also be on hand to chip pets at T-CEP’s Disaster Preparedness Fair on Sunday, September 27.

Former Messenger editor, cool-headed Lee Michaelson, was present for training to become an EOC Manager. “’In training’ being the operative word here,” she wryly said, adding, “The task is a little overwhelming,” but “really great. People in individual units—they do their jobs and it makes the job r