Getting Ready for the Big One

Hayward fault, Memorial Stadium

The Hayward Fault runs through the middle of Memorial Stadium, barely two miles from home.  If the Big One hits during a game, spotting the ball and moving the chains could get quite confusing, as the Home side of the stadium could move north several yards compared to the Visitor side.  However,  that will be the last thing on anyone’s mind.

All over Berkeley, emergency services — all services, period — will be so overstretched that neighborhoods will be basically on their own for a matter of days or weeks.  It’ll be fantasy paradise for Tea Party types — government shrunk to practically nothing.  For the rest of us, it’ll be a chaotic mess.

The City of Berkeley’s CERT program is a pragmatic effort to get ready for the immediate post-disaster period.  CERT = Community Emergency Response Team.  The idea is that a core of residents in each neighborhood will get trained, organized and equipped to perform basic community recovery services until a semblance of normalcy can be restored.  The classes are held at the Fire Department training facility at Cedar and 8th Street, and are free, but you have to sign up ahead of time, here.

I recently took two of the CERT classes, one on radio communications, and the other on fire suppression.  The classes take about three hours, the instructors are friendly and knowledgeable, and there’s plenty of give-and-take as well as hands-on exercises during the session.  For what they may be worth, I’m posting my class notes.  Advisory: they’re my notes, not the official PowerPoint scripts, and if you want to get it from the horse’s mouth, take the class yourself.

CERT Radio Communications

The class covered the use of readily-available portable short range radios (“walkie-talkies”) in the immediate aftermath of a disaster.

Generally, telephone service including cell phone service will be down or severely limited. Two-way neighborhood communications over distances greater than shouting range will rely on inexpensive two-way mobile radios, such as these Motorola handsets available from Costco or similar models from sporting goods stores.  

These radios use the FRS (Family Radio Service) and the GMRS (General Mobile Radio Service) frequencies and do not require a license from the FCC to operate.

The basic organizational context for their use is the existence of a neighborhood CERT command post and of one or more CERT mission teams composed of at least two persons, such as a Search and Rescue Team.  The various team functions are discussed in a different CERT class.  The neighborhood mission teams report by radio to the neighborhood command post, and the command post relays appropriate information to the City’s emergency dispatchers, and back.

The mobile radios have 22 channels and within each channel, 123 sub-channels or “Private Lines” (PL).  For the system to work, each neighborhood group needs to define, ahead of time, a primary and a secondary channel to be used by all radios in the neighborhood group.  The channel must be different from channels used by surrounding neighborhood groups, and must be in the range of Channels 2 – 14. The sub-channel (PL) setting must be kept at zero.

The radios have adequate range for our neighborhood, but reception may vary depending on exact location.  A useful training exercise is to survey the neighborhood to map good spots and poor spots for reception.

Unlike telephones, these radios either transmit or receive, but not both at the same time.  To transmit, you push the PTT button (Push To Talk).  While the PTT button is depressed, the radio cannot receive.  This means that within the neighborhood radio network, only one person can be talking at any given moment.  If two or more people push the PTT button and talk at the same time, the transmissions will overlap and will become unintelligible.

Because of this limitation, effective communication requires that transmissions be short, concise, and thought out before pushing the PTT button.  Minimalism is the preferred style.

Good handset technique is also important.    When speaking, talk across the microphone, not into it.  Speak very slowly and clearly; pause after every 5 words or so;  repeat important information such as numbers or spellings.  Release the PTT button immediately when finished transmitting.  The use of headphones for listening is encouraged.

CERT radio transmissions do not make use of 10-codes like police radios, e.g. 10-4, 10-26, etc.  Plain English is best.  There are some procedural words that are commonly used, such as “negative” for “no” and “affirmative” for “yes,” “copy” for “I received that” and a few others.  There are some damage assessment codes in common use, such as “red tag” for immediate action required, “black tag” for fatalities, “green tag” for walking wounded, and the like.  There are info sheets online with more details.

The basic format of a CERT transmission is to identify the party you want to reach, then to identify yourself, then to deliver the message.  For example:

“ICP SR1 Corner of California and Rose tree down blocking uphill lane of Rose, over.”

This message is addressed to ICP and comes from SR1.  ICP stands for “Incident Command Post” and SR1 is “Search and Rescue Team 1.”  Teams should generally identify themselves by their function, not by participants’ names.  The reply message might be:

“SR1 ICP Copy.  Are power lines down?”

And the response:

“ICP SR1 Negative on power lines.”

The neighborhood Command Post has to decide whether to pass this information on to the City’s emergency dispatcher, or whether to take some independent local action to deal with the situation.  The Command Post is also asked to keep a written log of all messages received and sent; there are forms for this log-keeping online.

In order to become familiar with the radios, the CERT instructor encouraged everyone to obtain the radios for their family, to keep them in the car along with spare batteries, and to use them frequently while shopping, hiking, and in other situations.

The radio class also encouraged interested CERT members to qualify for higher-level radio communications by getting a ham radio license and participating in NALCO, the local ham radio emergency network.

The official outline of this class in PDF:







CERT Fire Suppression

This class covered the role of CERT members in fire suppression.  Generally, CERT members can play a vital role in suppressing small fires, in preventing fires by removing fuel, in shutting off utilities, assisting in evacuations if called for, and supporting professional fire fighters.

When calling from a land line, 9-1-1 remains the emergency number.  But when 9-1-1 is called from a cell phone, the other end is picked up by a California Highway Patrol dispatcher in Vallejo, who has to pass the call on, causing delay.  When calling from a cell phone, the direct link to Berkeley fire and police dispatch is 981-5911.  However, immediately after a major disaster, cell phone voice service is likely to be unavailable.

In an emergency, Fire Department resources are sure to be overstretched.  The City has seven  fire houses with an average of 34 firefighters on duty at any given time, city-wide.  A large single-home fire usually requires the engines and staff of five fire houses to put it out.  Therefore in a large disaster, neighborhood people will be mainly on their own.

A “small fire” — as a rule of thumb — is one where the flames fill a space smaller than a doorway, and where the fire can be controlled in about five seconds.  Anything larger is a task for the Fire Department if it is available.  If it is not available, safety requires immediate escape from the scene.

Fire can spread very, very quickly.  In the class we saw a movie where a room with a dry Christmas tree was completely consumed by fire and smoke in about 45 seconds.

Almost all fire fatalities come from smoke inhalation.  Basic fire survival skills learned in school such as “stop, drop, and roll” should not be forgotten.

The most effective contribution that CERT members can make to fire suppression is to prevent fires from starting in the first place, and if fires break out, to suppress them while they are still small.

Fire prevention involves well-known but often ignored common-sense precautions, namely:


  • Smoke detectors.  Smoke detectors demonstrably save lives.  They can (a)  allow people to get out of a house before it’s too late and (b) alert people to a fire while it’s still small and can be controlled on the spot.  It’s important to replace smoke detector batteries on a regular schedule.


  • Electrical safety.  Avoid overloading outlets.  Avoid extension cords.  Don’t run cords under carpets.  Avoid adaptors that hook three-prong plugs into two-prong outlets.  Upgrade fused electrical systems to breaker panels.


  • Proper storage of flammable liquids.  Gasoline for lawn engines, propane for barbecues, and similar flammable liquids need to be stored in metal containers and kept away from sources of ignition such as hot water heaters.  The garage is, after the kitchen, the most common place in a house where fires begin.

Members of each household should know where and how to turn off their utilities.  Electrical breaker panels or fuse boxes should be labeled.  A non-sparking wrench should be kept next to or near the main gas meter, where the shutoff valve is located.  On a CERT-organized block, the shutoff locations should be part of the group’s data bank so that in an emergency when occupants are away or cannot shut off the utilities themselves, a CERT team can do it.

Turning electrical power back on after a shutoff is generally uncomplicated.  Turning gas back on after a shutoff can be dangerous because of the need to relight pilot lights.  Turning on gas may be best left to PG&E or to a professional plumber.

When attempting to put out a fire, it is important to be aware of these basic points:

Fire is a chemical reaction that requires three elements:  fuel, oxygen, and heat.  Fires go out if any one of these elements is removed.

There are three common types of fires, A, B, and C.

Type A involves ordinary combustibles like wood, paper, fabric, and other solids.
Type B feeds on flammable liquids such as oil or grease, gasoline, propane, etc.
Type C arises from live electrical currents.

Type A fires can usually be put out with water.  Water lowers the temperature and stops ignition.  Or they can be put out by depriving them of oxygen by smothering them with a blanket.

Type B fires cannot usually be put out with water.  If water is applied, the flammable liquid is likely to splatter, causing wider damage.  They must be put out with chemical solids such as baking soda, or by removing oxygen (putting a lid on a burning cook pot).

Suppression of Type C (electrical) fires begins with turning off the electrical current.  Applying water while the current is on is dangerous because water conducts electricity and the electrical power will travel up the water stream and may electrocute the firefighter.  After the current is turned off, electrical fires become Type A (or rarely, Type B) fires and are handled as such.

Every household should be equipped with one or more portable fire extinguishers.  Modern extinguishers contain a mixture of stuff that can put out type A, B and C fires.  The minimum recommended size of fire extinguisher carries the rating “2A10BC.”  An extinguisher of this size will spray its material for about five seconds.  To operate the extinguisher, one pulls the pin, aims the hose at the bottom of the flame, squeezes the trigger, and sweeps the spray from side to side.

After use, an extinguisher needs to be refilled.  Depending on brand and size, extinguishers will lose pressure and need to be recharged every few years.  The gauge on the top of the device indicates its status.

After the classroom session, we practiced basic fire suppression skills in the yard.  See photos, above and below.  We aimed a fire house at a pair of cones and knocked them over with the spray.  We used a fire extinguisher filled with water to put out a small practice fire.  In real life, fire extinguishers are not filled with water, and we would rarely if ever get to use a fire hose.  However, the drill taught basic extinguisher technique, and gave us insights into the work of professional fire fighters.

The course repeatedly underlined that fire is extremely dangerous and that CERT members need to:


  • Put their own safety first
  • Always work with at least one buddy
  • Always have at least two escape routes from a fire
  • Never try to put out big fires
  • Stay out of smoke-filled areas

The online slide show for the course (or an older version of it) is at

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