San Francisco goal: 'zai nan ying bian'

Disaster responsiveness, preparedness includes classes entirely in Cantonese.


Chinese speakers, particularly those living in Chinatown in San Francisco, was focus of NERT training.
Credit: Marisa Heller

NERT offers hands-on training to community members to help them respond in case of disaster.
Credit: NERT

Bei huang.

That message - "prepare against natural disasters" - is one the San Francisco Fire Department is trying to spread throughout Chinatown and the Asian-American community, which makes up more than 30 percent of the city's population.

To accomplish its goal of "zai nan ying bian" - disaster responsiveness and preparedness - the department offers a free 20-hour hands-on course to help residents prepare for and respond to a possible disaster. It is part of the city's ongoing Neighborhood Emergency Response Team (NERT) training program.

What makes the classes here different than similar programs taught around the U.S. as part of Community Emergency Response Training is that it is taught entirely in Cantonese.

The class is taught by bilingual firefighters from the department.

"It's the exact same program we teach to English speakers," said Lt. Erica Arteseros, the program coordinator. "Nothing is unique except we're addressing people in the language they are most comfortable in."

Thomas Mui of the Salvation Army in San Francisco said having the program taught in Cantonese was beneficial for the Chinese community.

"If we have something like this in Cantonese, it will be a big help," he said. "A lot of people will be interested."

Mui said most people in Chinatown were not prepared for a disaster, such as a fire or an earthquake.

"If anything happens, if an earthquake happens in the middle of the day, people will be panicked," he predicted. "They don't know what to do. We all need to be organized together in preparedness."

That is the goal of the NERT training.

"It's based on the fact that professional rescuers will be overwhelmed [in a major disaster] and that neighbors assisting neighbors is going to be one of the most common forms of rescue," Arteseros said. "So we offer disaster training to help people first and foremost to become personally prepared with a kit and a plan with their families and secondly, how to operate as an emergency response team operating in their own neighborhoods."

Mui agreed.

"People need to know when a disaster happen, people know where to help, where to report, what to do, what to prepare. Because when communication has been cut out, this kind of thing we need to help them coordinate," he said. "When people are injured, how are we going to help before the ambulance comes."

Equally important, Arteseros said, was the fact that people who are trained do not become liabilities in a disaster.

"When people respond without any training at all, they either get in the way or become injured themselves," she said. "If you become injured yourself, you haven't actually helped. So we talk as much about what people should do as what they should not do so they stay safe and protected."

Since the city began offering the training in 1990, an estimated 16,000 people have taken the classes. The classes consist of six three-hour sessions on topics including earthquake awareness, basic disaster skills, disaster medicine, light search and rescue, team organization and management and terrorism.

The sessions also include hands-on training.

"Hands-on is really valuable," Arteseros said. "It kind of puts into perspective something people don't get from reading a piece of paper."

Residents who complete the class receive a certificate; training is valid for two years, at the end of which time they can take a refresher course. The department also conducts an annual drill for program participants.

The department expects to host 40 classes this year, the same number as in 2006. Only one class is held annually in Cantonese, which this year attracted the maximum of 60 people. That is up from the 25 attendees one year ago and a major increase from the three people who showed up three years ago.

Today, there is a waiting list of people wanting to take the training in Cantonese and a second class this year for them was under consideration, Arteseros said.

The NERT program was formed after the October 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake. NERT is the equivalent of the federal Community Emergency Response Training but was renamed to better reflect San Francisco's 88 different neighborhoods.

There are more than 2,600 active CERT programs nationwide. The CERT program was started in 1985 by the Los Angeles City Fire Department and was expanded nationwide in 1993 by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Mui, an officer with the Salvation Army for 17 years, the last four in San Francisco, said he and his wife had no prior background or experience in disaster preparedness prior to taking NERT training.

"It was very very helpful and inspiring," he said.

Arteseros said those who have taken the classes have not yet had to put their training into actual practice.

Mui said he has yet to experience an earthquake, something he indicated he would like to go through to "be more alert and to see the urgency of it."

He noted that he was in Los Angeles in 1989 when the Loma Prieta earthquake hit San Francisco and was in San Francisco in 1994 when the Northridge quake devastated the LA area.

"But who knows when the next earthquake will come," he said.


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