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The City Journals

Major earthquake? Stay SAFE!

May 30, 2018 12:16PM ● By Mariden Williams

A key feature of SAFE Neighborhoods is individual preparedness, and you can start by building a 96-hour survival kit for every member of your household. (Salt Lake County Emergency Management)

By Mariden Williams | [email protected]

Last November, Salt Lake County kicked off the SAFE (Schools Aid Families in Emergencies) Neighborhoods program, and now members of the county emergency management office are seeking to boost community awareness of what the program is and how it works. 

What’s the big idea behind the program? In the event of a catastrophic earthquake, grab your 96-hour survival kit and walk to your neighborhood elementary school.

"We at the EOC (Emergency Operations Center) need to know where the worst-hit areas are, and the only way we can do that is to set up an area in a school where everybody gathers, and if they're OK, says, 'we're OK,'" said Salt Lake County Emergency Management Representative Bill Open. "And if your home's OK, you can go back home again. We don't need you to stay at the shelter. But we need to know where the worst-hit areas are." 

In the event of a 7.0 magnitude earthquake along the Wasatch fault line, it is estimated that 80 percent to 85 percent of homes will sustain moderate to severe damage, and some 350,000 people across the county will be displaced. Many main roads will become impassable, and basic services will be interrupted for weeks or months. This means there would be no water, no electricity, no gas and no telephone.

"It's really neighbors helping neighbors for the first week until we can start to get resources in from Denver or from the north or from the south," said Open.

To mitigate this, all 143 elementary schools in the Salt Lake Valley have been furnished with a JIT (Just In Time) kit, which contains tools to essentially transform every public elementary school in the valley into a hub for community organization, communication and aid. 

"Let me stress this: This is only for a catastrophic earthquake," said Open. "This doesn't work in a flood; it doesn't work in a snowstorm—only a catastrophic earthquake."

"The purpose of them being at the schools is that they're a centralized location, and just about everybody knows where their local elementary school is," said Salt Lake County Deputy Emergency Manager Matt Burchett.

The JIT kits are not what you might expect from an emergency relief kit: food, water, first aid supplies—all of these will need to be provided through other means (ideally a self-prepared 96-hour survival kit), because the JIT kits are all about communication. They contain long-range radios that will allow officials at schools to communicate with one another and to provide organizational instructions, job aids, paperwork, maps, charts and other informational resources.

"This kit is an organizational tool,” Open said. “That's all it is. There's nothing to eat, unless you really are interested in lots of fiber. It's just paper and organizational tools."

But in the chaos following a natural disaster, organization is a very important thing.

"There's a transportation plan, a hand radio plan, a family reunification plan—there's a lot of depth to this program," said Burchett.

Every kit contains three green books, each page of which contains a map of a single neighborhood. Using these, search parties will be able to assess the status of every house in the neighborhood, mark out who needs what and report back to the schools.

There are various other disaster preparation programs in place in smaller regions throughout the county, such as Riverton and Herriman's neighborhood block captain program. SAFE Neighborhoods is not designed to replace these programs but to work together with them.

"It works with CERT (Community Emergency Response Team); it works with your neighborhood block captains; it works with church programs. It dovetails perfectly with everything. The idea is to work with your neighbors," said Open. 

"The kits are ready,” Burchett said. “We've got an earthquake preparedness plan. And now the key is just to try and get the word out."