Net Failure 

Volunteers Sound Alarm over Flaws in Portland's Disaster Response Plan

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ON JANUARY 26, the Portland Bureau of Emergency Management (PBEM) tested its new citywide emergency notification system. It failed miserably, reaching just 3 percent of the 317,000 Portlanders it targeted. And now volunteers working on another of the bureau's bulwarks against catastrophe—its Neighborhood Emergency Teams (NET)—are saying the bureau is failing again.

It's a failure, they warn, that could cost some Portlanders their lives.

The program is supposed to work like this: Whenever a disaster strikes—and one day it will—volunteer team members from all across Portland will be asked to aid overwhelmed first responders. These volunteers, trained by PBEM in emergency preparedness, will likely reach victims even before paramedics or firefighters.

But the volunteers, who call themselves NETs, worry that may be a pipe dream. Their program is underfunded, they say. They also complain that the bureau's list of volunteers is outdated and just three of Portland's 95 neighborhoods actually have active teams with about 15-20 people each. Worse, the NETs also say training is too infrequent and that the bureau doesn't follow through afterward.

"There's a huge disconnect once you get out of the training and try connecting with your neighbors," says Mark Ginsberg, a NET team leader near SE Woodstock.

Ginsberg says he struggled to find NETs in his neighborhood. When he asked PBEM for a list of members, the bureau was reluctant to share its database. Then, when he got his list, it was out of date. PBEM, using that old information, currently estimates some 1,200 trained NETs in Portland. The real number is likely much lower.

"There is a lot of frustration from some members," says Marcel Rodriguez, an emergency medical technician and NET team leader in Southwest.

In October, tensions flared badly enough that PBEM hired a mediation group, Resolutions Northwest, to help settle disputes between NETs and the city. Adela Basayne, who conducted the initial mediation interviews, said the bureau also asked mediators to investigate the value of the NET program. Resolutions Northwest will present its recommendations for changing NET later this month.

Basayne, after interviewing 24 people and reviewing 30 written statements, wound up with a litany of complaints: from gripes about a lack of support from PBEM after training and out-of-date contact info, to complaints about how infrequently NETs are trained in the first place. NETs also reported PBEM wasn't adequately funding NET, citing the part-time status of the program's current coordinator, William Warren.

Warren was on medical leave and unavailable for comment.

In general, NETs told Basayne that the program—despite the city's reliance on it—would be "inadequate" in a major disaster.

What worries NETs most is "the big one," a magnitude 9.0 earthquake—think Japan last year—that's expected to slam the Northwest any time in the next 100 years. January 26, the day PBEM picked for its emergency test, marked the 312th anniversary of the region's last massive earthquake. Rodriguez tells the Mercury it was NETs who had pushed the bureau to mark the event somehow.

"So we finally get something, which is great, but it turned out be a botched warning," say Rodriguez.

"There has been doubt about my bureau's commitment to the [NET] program," says PBEM Director Carmen Merlo, "and I would like to say this is a project that I feel very committed to and sincerely want to improve."

Merlo says her bureau is taking steps to address volunteers' concerns, including updating its database, and adding online-only training sessions. As for whether NETs will be ready for "the big one"?

"There is no such thing as being fully prepared," Merlo says. "But I think the training, as rusty as it might be for some folks, will kick in."

Merlo disputed other claims, including volunteers' assertion that there are only a few dozen active NETs; Merlo thinks the number is closer to 400 or 500. But she did agree the program was inadequately funded. Most funding for the NET program comes from grants from the Department of Homeland Security, she says.

According to numbers provided by PBEM, these annual and semi-annual grants fluctuate wildly, are often shared with Multnomah County, and give NET only about $30,000 a year.

Mayor Sam Adams, who oversees PBEM, says the city is overhauling all of its emergency preparedness programs, including NET. The changes will be based on a 2009 audit of those citywide programs. Adams says he expects to sit down with NETs in the next several weeks.

"I agree with many of the concerns," Adams says.

One NET team leader, Ethan Jewett, said he won't buy any excuses about lack of funding.

"They will tell you they don't have any money," says Jewett, "and they will say it's not the bureau's place to go to city council and rattle sabers and scare the citizenry about disasters. I get that, but that leaves us in the same situation."

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