More than a year before last fall’s anthrax episode, San Jose’s public-safety personnel had practiced responding to an anthrax attack, using a mock situation related to abortion-clinic threats. In addition, police officers had been outfitted with gas masks for working in biochemical situations and received a state-of-the-art robot to help with searches, pick up bombs and take them apart.
Although in people’s minds, terrorism has risen to the top of the danger scale recently, San Jose has always felt the need to prepare for earthquakes, hazardous-materials incidents, floods and biological and chemical attacks. As a result, the city is one of the most prepared in the nation when it comes to anticipating and responding to an array of emergency situations, especially those involving multiple casualties.
The person behind the planning and programs is Frances Edwards-Winslow, the city’s director of emergency preparedness. “She anticipated all these things,” says Bill Lansdowne, San Jose’s chief of police. “She understands her field very well.”
Edwards-Winslow, known as “Frannie,” came on board 11 years ago, soon after San Jose had pulled emergency services out of the fire department and made it an independent agency reporting to the city manager. She is now regarded as a peer of the police and fire chiefs in the local public-safety system.
In 1998, San Jose was the first city to complete a U.S. Department of Defense anti-terrorism training program. It also is one of a handful of cities the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services uses as a model for its metropolitan medical-response-system program.
One element in that model is a facilitated exercise program for police officers and firefighters. In most places, when emergency personnel do a full-scale exercise they are given a problem and told to respond as best they can. They run off and do what comes into their heads. Afterwards, they are critiqued and told what they did wrong, a practice that can be irritating to participants, Edwards-Winslow says.
San Jose has changed to a military model using a facilitator who asks public-safety officers to discuss what they think they would do but not to act on it until they come up with a plan the facilitator thinks is safe and effective. “That way, they never act with incorrect behavior,” Edwards-Winslow says. “People remember best what they do, not what they hear. By letting people make mistakes, what’s embedded in their minds is the behavior that was wrong.” Instead, in San Jose, responders are walked systematically through the “crisis,” reacting in the correct manner.
Edwards-Winslow is regarded as a hard-working, responsive and demanding official who makes sure public-safety personnel have the training and equipment they need. “If she says there is a deadline, she’s there the second it’s up, knocking at our door,” says Lansdowne. “It’s important to have someone like that.”
With $1.4 million in funding from three different federal agencies, Edwards-Winslow has equipped public-safety personnel across the spectrum, from fire to police to public health officials. She sets up regular drills to test their skills. If there were to be a biological attack, for instance, the medical community would have in hand a written document that is a ready reference to five diseases “of concern” that have been weaponized by hostile countries. Physicians can quickly rule in or out exotic diseases and find laboratory tests relating to them.
Edwards-Winslow stresses that the ability to coordinate and work with all the agencies and people who must respond to a disaster is essential for any emergency preparedness office. “The key to success is collaboration,” she says.
That philosophy extends to the general public as well. Under a program called San Jose Prepared!, about 1,300 residents have paid $40 to take 16 hours of classes in home preparedness, fire suppression, disaster medicine and light search and rescue. The mayor recently commended the program with a good neighbor award.
— Ellen Perlman
Photos by Kirk McClelland