OBergfell: ‘Now is the time to prepare’

Rebecca Neipp

News Review Staff Writer

OBergfell: ‘Now is the time to prepare’“Let’s be honest — we dodged a bullet. A 7.1 earthquake would have leveled almost any other city,” said Robert OBergfell, an expert in disaster preparedness and crisis management who played a key role in the community’s emergency response.

“My main concern is that because we didn’t experience the loss of life and disruption of service expected from this kind of event, we are not taking it seriously enough. There’s a casual attitude in our recovery. But I think we need to acknowledge the fact that next time it could be worse and prepare accordingly.”

OBergfell, a retired Ridgecrest Police Department sergeant, has been involved with the Emergency Services Committee for 18 years.

He said the group was formed to give people in emergency services an opportunity to develop face-to-face relationships with the agencies and volunteers who come together in response to a manmade or natural disaster.

Every month, uniformed first responders and citizens meet to discuss standard operating procedures, provide training, run preparedness drills and discuss lessons learned from past crises — ranging from active-shooter situations to flash flooding.

Over the years, the faces change as leadership and employment evolve in the schools, utility companies, healthcare fields and emergency services, but the core group has formed tight bonds and quick responses.

As reported in previous editions of the News Review, county officials have pointed to the Ridgecrest team as a model of preparedness. Outside agencies have solicited training from local leaders.

When the community was rocked by back-to-back earthquakes starting July 4, the emergency response was rapid and comprehensive. Ridgecrest Police Chief Jed McLaughlin maintained incident command of the Emergency Operations Center, aided by OBergfell and hundreds of others who had spent countless hours planning and training for such an event.

From visiting first-responders to members of the media to elected officials, nearly everyone who descended on the scene remarked on the well-deployed response.

“Ryan Smith from the governor’s Office of Emergency Services, who basically visits EOCs for a living, couldn’t believe how our team had it together. He said that so often people wait for someone to show up to tell them what to do. We were ready.”

The following days would test the fortitude of personnel from EMS, health care and utilities who worked around the clock to mitigate fires, power outages and ensuing injuries. But the expected chaos never broke out.

“We are still working on lessons learned for this one, and there will be a debrief eventually with everyone involved, but that will take time because we are not done yet,” said OBergfell. “We are still in a Stage 1 emergency, which means that we remain on alert.”

That is partly because of historical evidence that points to the likelihood of follow-on aftershocks, but partly because “once we declare that we are not longer in the state of emergency, the assistance stops. Right now we have assets available to us at a moment’s notice, which is what we need for the time being.”

The local team also turned out to play an important role for the stranded Trona community. “Those are our people, too,” said OBergfell.

He commended State Sen. Shannon Grove, who served as a driver in rallying Trona’s government leadership to respond to the crisis.

“I think all of our first-responders did a great job. Obviously it taxed our services, and there were some disruptions following both earthquakes, but the county stepped in and helped make sure our community was taken care of.”

Even off-duty responders reported in to find out what the needs were. Local residents reported seeing uniformed personnel patrolling neighborhoods to check on the homebound and offer assistance to those who needed it.

“And Jed did a great job. You can really only plan so much for something like this — that’s why practicing and preparing is so important. But that paid off.”

OBergfell also speculated that in this instance, the remoteness of our community paid off. “When we train, one of the things I tell people is, ‘Pretend no one is coming.’ People who attend our meetings understand the need to be ready on demand, because we know we can be cut off from civilization very quickly.

“The fortunate part is that we were not on our own — many, many agencies came to our aid.”

However, he said, the nature of earthquakes is impossible to predict — in timing, in magnitude and in potential destruction.

“What we need is for everyone to know how to prepare.” Resources such as redcross.org/earthquakes have detailed information about how to formulate an evacuation and reunification plan following a disaster; how to store phone numbers and other means of communication in the event the cellular network is down; and what kinds of supplies to have on hand in your home, your office or your vehicle in case of emergency.

“I can live for a minimum of 24 hours off the go-bag in my car,” he said.

“I am happy that we rebounded — that our city survived and we appear to be on our way to recovery. But I wish people would take this seriously.

“We have seen in other cities how quickly things can change. The city of Paradise did not expect that fire. Mexico City did not expect that earthquake. But no one ever comes from an event like that and says, ‘I wish I hadn’t prepared so much.’

“Make sure you are prepared for whatever happens.”

Officials say that residents may be without helpfor 72 hours or longer following a wide-scale disaster. “You have to be able to take care of not only yourself, but your family and your neighbors.”

“In addition to our first responders, we have a lot of volunteers who play a vital role in disasters,” said McLaughlin. “We wouldn’t be able to do it without them. These people are awesome.”

He estimated that more than 100 residents are involved with Police and Community Together — which gets involved with day-to-day operations at RPD — and the Community Emergency Response Team — which is more involved with disaster-related training and operations.

Anyone interested in getting involved with either group should email rmarrone@ridgecrest-ca.gov.

Pictured: Robert OBergfell shows the “go bag” he keeps in his truck in case of emergencies — Photo by Rebecca Neipp

Story First Published: 2019-07-26