Community help sought for next disaster

Fairgrounds partners with CERT volunteers

The Del Mar Fairgrounds became a human evacuation center for the first time during the October 2007 wildfires. It is not expected to be the last.

In preparation for future emergencies, the Del Mar Fairgrounds is partnering with Community Emergency Response Teams (CERT) in Del Mar and Solana Beach to provide volunteer shelter workers.

“My goal is to see what we can do as a team working together to better prepare in the future, when and if we need to evacuate people to the Del Mar Fairgrounds,” said Tim Fennell, general manager of the fairgrounds.

More than 125 residents in the two communities have completed CERT training, which teaches neighbors how to work together as an organized team following a large-scale disaster.

If the fairgrounds needs volunteers, who better to call than CERT members who are close enough to walk if necessary, said Solana Beach resident Roger Boyd. He proposed the idea to fairgrounds and city officials.

“What a perfect marriage,” said David Ott, fire chief for Del Mar and Solana Beach. “I think this is a great opportunity and possibly see this as a pilot program.”

Shelter training

Shelter worker training will be offered to interested members who pass a background check. The county Office of Emergency Services will provide the six-hour training at the fairgrounds.

“It is very grueling work, physical labor,” said Stasia Place, an emergency services coordinator. “You’re dealing with a lot of evacuated residents who don’t know the status of their homes or family members … it takes a very calm person to work with them.”

The training session will cover the basics of shelter management, such as set up, resident registration, medical services, meals and rule enforcement.

Participants will also tour the fairgrounds so they are familiar with the facility before reporting for duty.

CERT members will work alongside fairgrounds staff that are now trained shelter managers.

CERT members applauded the partnership at an orientation meeting Aug 26. Many volunteered at the fairgrounds last year, even though many were not trained as shelter workers.

“We used common sense and were just good neighbors,” said Paula Marincic, a Solana Beach resident. “I am sure there is much more we can learn.”

Del Mar Councilwoman and CERT member Crystal Crawford said the partnership was a natural outgrowth from the 2007 fires.

“The fairgrounds did an excellent job setting up a shelter for animals and people,” Crawford said. “Now we can learn what we can do to better prepare - that’s what CERT is all about.”

More than 40 individuals expressed interest in the training at the meeting, but more are needed.

Training as many people as possible is important because only a third of trainees will respond in an emergency and untrained volunteers should not work in shelters, Place said.

Even trained CERT members should not volunteer if not officially activated by public safety officials because they will not be covered by federal disaster worker insurance, Place said.

Better prepared

When the fairgrounds opened its doors to more than 2,400 humans as well as 2,700 large animals during the 2007 wildfires, it was unexpected, but staff and volunteers pulled a shelter together.

The county now identifies the fairgrounds as a possible mega-shelter for more than 5,000 people and the two agencies are working together on an implementation plan.

The fairgrounds will not always be the best evacuation site. Sitting in a 100-year flood plain, the facility would not be a safe place if the Lake Hodges dam failed or if a major tsunami was headed towards Del Mar.

However, the fairgrounds is preparing for the next time wildfires threaten the county, training staff, purchasing supplies and improving procedures.

With a more formal implementation plan in place, there will be some changes from the 2007 shelter. For example, family pets will be allowed on the premises, but not inside the buildings where people sleep. Many attributed the calmness of the shelter to families and pets staying together, but this is not allowed in other shelters.

Get trained

The next Del Mar-Solana Beach CERT training begins Oct. 26. It’s a free six-class course taught over three Tuesday evenings and Saturday mornings at the Solana Beach Fire Department. For more information, call the fire department at (858) 720-4412.