My husband and I were walking back to our Lower Nob Hill home one hazy pink evening a few years ago when we heard screaming. In the time we’d gone to dinner, one of our neighbors had been found dead. When we arrived at our building, we found his hysterical girlfriend on the front steps, shrieking as first responders hustled past her to contain the scene.
I’m not trained as a medic or counselor, but my first impulse was to stay by her side. While my spouse joined neighbors assisting paramedics, I coaxed the wailing young woman to sit down. I don’t know how long we waited there together, but eventually one of her friends arrived, and I quietly went inside.
We all prepare for our version of a worst-case scenario in different ways. Some families purchase life insurance policies. Some folks stockpile canned goods and bottled water. Since moving to San Francisco a decade ago, I’d been casually concerned about the next big earthquake, yet mostly underprepared for it. But after my neighbor died, I realized my unusually calm crisis response could be useful in a wider-scale disaster, and that for me, training to survive would mitigate any lingering disaster-related anxieties. It wasn’t long before I signed up for the San Francisco Fire Department’s NERT training.
The Neighborhood Emergency Response Team program was formed after the 6.9-magnitude Loma Prieta earthquake shook the California coast in 1989. The concept is brilliantly simple: 20 hours of free NERT coursework prepares individuals to be self-sufficient following a disaster. And by training thousands of San Franciscans in preparedness, NERT grows its civilian corps equipped to provide backup to emergency first responders. The courses combine classroom exercises with hands-on practice using fire extinguishers and clearing rooms in which playacting victims simulate injuries and scenarios we may encounter after a major quake. The classes are especially informative thanks to the instructors — a rotating group of encouraging, appreciative professional fire fighters who are expertly skilled at helping students prepare for earthquakes, fires and power outages.
Some of the most useful skills taught in NERT courses are generally good habits for living a better life. For example, NERT encourages getting to know your neighbors. Figure out who in your area — an elderly neighbor, or someone with limited mobility — might need extra help in the event of an emergency. If loved ones live nearby, consider creating a group reunification plan.
I’d been involved with NERT for several years and completed additional certifications in CPR instruction and psychological first aid when I felt ready to take on the volunteer role of Nob Hill neighborhood coordinator. Neighborhood coordinators organize local meetings and exercises for NERT-certified residents, and many coordinators cultivate richer community involvement by partnering with local neighborhood associations.
One of the great privileges of being a journalist is discovering how other people live. NERT builds on my natural curiosity and extends learning about other people’s lives into offering practical skills for our collective well-being. These days, I spend a lot of time thinking about the diversity of Nob Hill. In addition to hill-top houses, our district has an impressive number of rent-controlled apartment buildings, as well as old and new condominium complexes. Some of our city blocks have as many residents as entire neighborhoods of single-family homes in other parts of town. But no matter how or where we live, what matters is our agreement on one simple principle: that we care about our community and its long-term resiliency and survival.
“Most social change is chosen,” Rebecca Solnit writes in her book A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster. “But disaster doesn’t sort us out by preference; it drags us into emergencies that require we act, and act altruistically, bravely, and with initiative in order to survive or save the neighbors, no matter how we vote or what we do for a living.” When I think about how we will all work together to survive the next disaster to strike Northern California, our differences feel marginal compared with our unified goal.