cityhall3.jpgThousands of people flooded San Francisco’s Civic Center Plaza this afternoon as 10 buildings around the square participated in an unprecedented joint evacuation drill to maximize preparedness for a real emergency.

A year of conception and four months of serious planning went into today’s exercise, which was planned to safely organize the evacuation of 4,000 to 6,000 people from federal, state, and local agencies based in buildings such as City Hall, the Department of Health, and the Superior Court building at 400 McAllister St.

Several representatives of the participating agencies – including Michael Trevino, a spokesman for the University of California Hastings law school – stressed that today’s drill wasn’t a performance meant to go off without a hitch, but rather a learning experience meant to pinpoint areas needing improvement.

Trevino said the massive coordination among the various agencies – which comprise a small gathering called the Civic Center Work Group -is reason enough for commendation.

“Irrespective of what happens today, this planning process is significant,” Trevino said.
The work group was formed within the past year and consists of about 25 people representing the management, security, and emergency personnel of the 10 buildings, Trevino said.

The idea for a joint evacuation drill came from City Hall building managers who noticed major safety gaps during a fire drill in October 2009.

The Federal Building, located at 450 Golden Gate Ave., was evacuated for a drill at the same time as City Hall, unbeknownst to managers of both buildings.

Staff from each building had been trained to migrate to the same location, causing chaos and confusion, City Hall building manager Rob Reiter said.

The incident motivated Reiter to bring all the agencies housed around Civic Center Plaza together to create an emergency evacuation plan that would provide a safe and effective way of getting tenants out of government buildings if a mass evacuation were needed, he said.

Just the planning process for today’s drill highlighted areas for education within standing evacuation guidelines for the participating agencies, Trevino said.

In addition to designating separate evacuation locations for all agencies, personnel from the various groups were able to sync up their radio communication and create points of contact to strengthen cross-agency communication, Trevino said.

UC Hastings learned a unique lesson even before the start of the drill today, Trevino said: coordinate evacuation dates to not coincide with midterm exams, which was a small glitch in today’s drill.

Because people had to take midterms, only the larger two of the three Hastings buildings around the Civic Center Plaza were evacuated today, including the 25-story McAllister Tower at 100 McAllister St.

The drill was supposed to start at 1 p.m. after several streets – Goodlett Place between Polk and McAllister streets, McAllister Street between Polk and Larkin streets, and Golden Gate Avenue between Polk and Larkin streets – were blocked at 12:55 p.m.

However, another lesson came very rapidly when the Superior Court alarm sounded about seven minutes too early, sending a flood of people streaming into the streets toward the plaza. San Francisco sheriff’s deputies quickly blocked off the streets, causing nearly no traffic to back up.

“I believe there was even some benefit there,” Trevino said of the sudden rush for street blockage. “That’s what we’d have to do in a real emergency.”

Trevino learned later that the court employee who sounded the alarm didn’t know that simply inserting the alarm key in the slot, not turning it, would activate the system. He chalked it up to another lesson from today’s drill that will make future emergency response smoother.

“You really don’t want a drill to go absolutely perfectly because then you don’t learn anything from it,” said Eileen Hirst, the chief of staff for the Sheriff’s Department, which provides building security for multiple buildings including City Hall and the Superior Court.

The rest of the buildings sounded their alarms and were evacuated on schedule at 1 p.m., and Trevino, Hirst, and about a dozen other emergency responders seemed pleased gazing down from an oft-used command post on the third floor of the Bill Graham Civic Auditorium as thousands of people flooded to the plaza from all directions.

A steady flow of people poured out of City Hall, where about 1,000 people work every day and roughly another 700 civilians come to vote, drop off a child at the day care center, or handle other civic business with one of the nine city departments housed their, according to Hirst.

At least three wedding parties were evacuated from City Hall during the drill, the biggest of which was a group of about 15 people who took advantage of the street closures to hold a photography session in front of City Hall in the middle of Polk Street.

The father of the groom in that wedding, John Payne of Pinole, said that the alarms went off immediately after his son’s ceremony ended.

“They kind of warned us, so we knew we had to run,” he said with a laugh, adding they felt lucky it didn’t happen in the middle of the wedding.

Several City Hall employees also got a chance to show off the Halloween costumes intended only for their coworkers during the drill today, including one woman dressed as Giants pitcher Tim Lincecum and another representing an unceremoniously shy Lady GaGa.

The last group of drill participants lined up and filed back into City Hall around 1:40 p.m. Representatives from the city’s fire department, sheriff’s department, the Superior Court, and the Department of Emergency Services said they were pleased with today’s drill.

Aside from the early execution of the alarm in the court, there were no other major glitches in the drill, Trevino said.

Hirst agreed. “I think it went very well,” she said. “Each building participated fully and everybody did what they were supposed to do.”

The agencies plan to make the joint drill an annual happening and work with Civic Center Plaza-adjacent buildings such as the main branch of the San Francisco Public Library and the Asian Art Museum in upcoming exercises, Trevino said.

Kyveli Diener, Bay City News

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