For Safety’s Sake…Think Again

We often assume the police, fire, EMS, mayor, and other first responders are fulfilling their duties to keep us safe.


But according to my studies of plans from the top 100 English-speaking cities in the world, this isn’t always the case.


Many of our cities are in danger from their own emergency plans which sometimes feature pages of jargon, acronyms, missing appendices, irrelevant lists of contributors, and wishful thinking.


Researchers in the field call them “fantasy plans,” relying on public transit, private cars, and even expertise and help that often doesn’t really exist.  Up to 56% of urbanites don’t have cars, and often the remedies listed in crisis plans turn out not to exist. In fact, some evacuation orders have killed more people than the emergency did.  Contra-flow for evacuations, with all roads leading out, has been called potentially life-threatening by researchers.  


Where does San Francisco fit in?


San Francisco has two main emergency plans: the All-Hazards Strategic Plan and the Hazard Mitigation Plan


The biggest strength of San Francisco’s All-Hazards Strategic Plan is the emphases on a comprehensive training program for city workers, the use of volunteers, and social media.


But the All-Hazards plan was last updated six years before I studied it, and the plan has not followed the maintenance schedule set for it. Moreover, when I studied it, I found myself wondering whether anyone is really safer as a result of reading San Francisco’s statements describing how the plan was developed or what the visions, missions, and guiding principles of it are. It’s hard to see how these help anyone prepare for an emergency, but they take up about a quarter of the plan.


The Hazard Mitigation Plan is different. It’s newer that the All-Hazards plan. But it has some of the same problems.


The Hazard Mitigation Plan is full of very general statements and is often overly preoccupied with semantics definitions. The section on “seismic hazards,” for example is mostly about distinguishing earthquakes from landslides and tsunamis. A brief history of the effect of those events on San Francisco follows. But I could find no procedures describing specifically what to do in the even of those emergencies.  How does it help  victims to be absolutely sure they are being swept away by a landslide versus a tsunami or earthquake?


It looks as though San Francisco’s plans were not intended for the general public. They offer hardly any information on individualized, micro-level measures that citizens can take to prepare themselves to deal with emergencies.


No city’s crisis plan is perfect. But a good plan can mean the difference between a well-handled crisis and disaster which can cost lives.


Some other cities’ emergency plans do have something serious to say — Boston’s climate change study, Kansas City’s dealing with pets, for whom residents will risk their lives, and Richmond, B.C.’s links to great information on personal preparedness. These are just some of the elements that stand out and which could be duplicated by other cities.


If San Francisco or any other city lacks the money or time to write a better plan, the best advice from publicly available plans could be cut and paste it into a better document than is on most websites in North America.


Some of the plans, including San Francisco’s may have been updated in the months since I read them. No plan will ever be able to foresee every form disaster can take, so it’s important to be flexible and learn from the experiences of other cities.  But the main focus should be on useful, clear information for the average citizen.  

Today in History: July 7th

1996: Canadian Space Agency astronaut Dr. Bob Thirsk lands with his Shuttle mission crew mates at the Kennedy Space Center, after Columbia completed 272 revolutions of the earth, and a record 16-day, 21-hour, 48-minute and 30-second flight.

1975: Ed Broadbent is chosen leader of New Democratic Party on fourth ballot in Winnipeg, replacing David Lewis. Finishing in second place was Rosemary Brown.

1887: Blyth built a cloth-sailed wind turbine (or “windmill”) in the garden of his holiday cottage in Marykirk and used the electricity it produced to charge accumulators; the stored electricity was used to power the lights in his cottage, which thus became the first house in the world to be powered by wind-generated electricity.

Today in History: June 29th

1995: A department store in Seoul, South Korea, collapses, killing more than 500 people. The tragedy occurs due to a series of errors made by the designers and contractors who built the store and the criminal negligence of the store’s owner. Rescue efforts continue for weeks and one survivor is pulled out 16 days after the collapse.

1995: The American space shuttle Atlantis docks with the Russian space station Mir to form the largest man-made satellite ever to orbit the Earth. This was an historic moment of cooperation between former rival space programs. Daniel Goldin, chief of NASA, called it the beginning of “a new era of friendship and cooperation” between the U.S. and Russia.

1974: With Argentine President Juan Peron on his deathbed, Isabela Martinez de Peron, his wife and vice president, is sworn in as the leader of the South American country. President Isabela Peron, a former dancer and Peron’s third wife, was the Western Hemisphere’s first female head of government.

Today in History: May 5th

1989: Clyde Wells becomes takes office as premier of Newfoundland, after the Liberals are elected, ending 17 years of Progressive Conservative rule. Wells became known for his opposition to several provision of the Meech Lake Accord.

1961: Alan Shepard becomes the first American in space and second overall after the Soviet Union’s Yuri Gagarin.

See also the Resurgence of Russia, Canada in Space

1950: Severe flooding by the Red River in Manitoba kills one person in Winnipeg and causes $600 million in damages. Winds of 80 kph cause waves to break through the dikes of Winnipeg. One third of the population is forced to flee their homes.

Today in History: April 12th

1980:  Terry Fox dips his artificial leg into the Atlantic to start his cross-country ‘Marathon of Hope’ to raise money for cancer research.  He covers 5,373 kilometres and raise $1.7 million. Fox will end his run on Sept.1 in Thunder Bay, Ontario, and dies on June 28, 1981.

1961: Yuri Gagarin, Soviet cosmonaut, becomes the first person in space, as well as the first to orbit the Earth.

1917: After three days of fierce combat and over 10,000 casualties, Canadians seize the previously German-held Vimy Ridge in France. Historians have pointed to this victory as a moment of greatness for Canada, when it emerged from Britain’s shadow to attain its own measure of military achievement and earning a reputation for efficiency and strength on the battlefield.

See also Canada in Space, the Resurgence of Russia

Today in History: February 20th

2003: A fire at a nightclub in West Warwick, Rhode Island, kills 100 people and seriously injures almost 200 more. Pyrotechnics set off behind the heavy metal band Great White, performing at the Station nightclub, set fire to the soundproofing foam on the ceiling. The fire spread rapidly and panic ensued as most of the 400 people tried to leave through the front door.

1962: John Glenn becomes the first American to orbit the Earth, and the third person in space after the Soviet Union’s Yuri Gagarin and fellow American Alan Shepard. Glenn later serves as a Senator, and in 1998 he becomes the oldest person to fly in space at the age of 77, when he’s aboard the space shuttle Discovery.

1959: It’s the Canadian aviation industry’s ‘Black Friday’ as the Avro Arrow program is cancelled by the Diefenbaker government. The Arrow is an advanced delta-winged interceptor aircraft. The decision puts the 14,528 Avro employees out of work, as well as another 15,000 other employees at Avro suppliers.

Today in History: February 1st

2003: The Space Shuttle Columbia disintegrates during re-entry, killing all seven astronauts on board.

An Ounce of Prevention – Space Shuttle Challenger

1992: The Chief Judicial Magistrate of Bhopal court declares Warren Anderson, ex-CEO of Union Carbide, a fugitive under Indian law for failing to appear in the Bhopal Disaster case from 1984. The official death toll was 2,255, and as many as 25,000 deaths were ultimately attributed to the gas leak at a pesticide plant.

An Ounce of Prevention – Bhopal

1983: Pay TV launches in Canada, including such new channels as First Choice and Superchannel.

Today in History: January 28th

1986: Space Shuttle Challenger breaks apart 73 seconds into its flight, killing 7 astronauts. President Ronald Reagan postpones his State of the Union address scheduled for that evening, and instead delivered a national address on the disaster from the Oval Office.

See also Canada in Space and Ounce of Prevention excerpt on this topic.

1980: Canada’s Ambassador to Iran Kenneth Taylor engineers escape of six US diplomats, housed with Canadian Embassy staff since November 22, 1979, when the US Embassy was overrun during the Iranian revolution, and 66 hostages taken. The Americans leave with Canadian passports; Taylor himself leaves a few hours later, and becomes a hero in the US, for masterminding ‘The Canadian Caper’.

1918: Manitoba becomes the first province in Canada to allow women the right to vote and to hold provincial office, after protests by leaders such as Nellie McClung.

Today in History: December 27th

1968: Apollo 8 lands in the Pacific Ocean, ending the first orbital manned mission to the Moon.   Apollo 8 was the first human spaceflight to leave Earth orbit, the first to be captured by and escape from the gravitational field of another celestial body, and the first crewed voyage to return to Earth from another celestial body—Earth’s Moon.  See also Canada in Space.

1979: The USSR invades Afghanistan. The Soviet war in Afghanistan was a nine-year proxy war during the Cold war involving the Soviet Union, supporting the Marxist-Leninist government of the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan. Due to the interminable nature of the war, the conflict in Afghanistan has sometimes been referred to as the “Soviet Union’s Vietnam War” or “the Bear Trap”.  See also @issue: The Resurgence of Russia.

1836: The deadliest avalanche in the United Kingdom occurs in Lewes, Sussex, killing eight people and destroying a row of workers’ cottages when a huge build-up of snow on a chalk cliff overlooking the town collapses into the settlement 100 metres below.    See also Learning from Past Disasters

Today in History: December 24th

1968: The crew of Apollo 8 are the first humans to enter the Moon’s orbit. They perform 10 lunar orbits, and broadcast live TV pictures along with the astronauts reading from the Book of Genesis. This becomes the most watched television broadcast at the time and one of the most watched in history.   See also Canada in Space

1953: In a highly unusual chain of events, a volcanic eruption in New Zealand causes a flood that sweeps away a train filled with passengers, killing more than 150 people. The charging lake water slammed into the Tangiwai Railroad Bridge and weakened it so much that when the train came to the bridge, it gave way, sending six cars of the train plunging into the flood water.

1906: Canadian physicist and inventor Reginald Fessenden transmits what is possibly the world’s first radio broadcast of entertainment and music to a general audience. He makes the broadcast from his station near Boston, featuring his wife singing and Fessenden himself playing ‘O Holy Night’ on his violin to sailors on ships in the Atlantic and Caribbean. He also sings carols, reads the Bible.