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When is the Next Aftershock, Please?

Submitted by Linda Olmstead

Post-earthquake calls; the night of the Loma Prieta Earthquake, October 17th, 1989.

Monterey County was without commercial power for twenty hours after the Loma Prieta. Dispatchers in the two communication centers operated by the County all dove under their consoles when things started shaking, and were in the dark for about 15 seconds until the emergency generators brought the centers back up; but, unfortunately, without CAD. (That's another story in itself!!!)

Ceiling tiles fell on their heads, cracks appeared in the hallways of the courthouse and folks streamed out past the camera in the hall screaming "Evacuate!" but the dispatchers just kept right on doing what they are expected to do....

During the horrendous call-load in the first hour, everyone was incredibly busy, running out of available units to send , stacking card after card of something to "go to next" and going from one incoming call to another. No one noticed the logging recorder hadn't restarted after the power flux..... and when a large write-on/wipe off status board was set up in front of it, nobody even LOOKED at it until midnight, when it came time to change the tapes. (The EQ happened at 1704 hours.) Of course, folks wanted to know "If we just had an earthquake??" and "Where was the epicenter?" and "How strong was it?" and (my favorite) "When is the next aftershock?"

One of the police agencies sent a Lieutenant in to assist with making decisions and he began to handle some of the more difficult callers who weren't happy with dispatchers' replies...

When I arrived from the other communications center, where I've been working (I'm a Comm Sup and I was assigned to the Monterey Center, but had been in a meeting til 1700 at the Salinas Center), he tells me he "hasn't been as polite with some of these callers as your people have to be. ...they've got MUCH more patience that I do!"

It appears that he told one caller (the umpti-umpth one with this question about when the next aftershock would be), "We've scheduled one for about 5 minutes from now; hang on!!"

THEN we discover that the tape hadn't been on anyway, and "we" could have told anyone anything we dang well wished, without proof!!!!

Here are some examples of calls received:

One call I took was a NOISE COMPLAINT from an annoyed neighbor of someone who had a portable generator for her iron lung machine at home... Could we do something about that for him???? (Sure, and let the lady die, mister......) No, I didn't say that!!

"When will the power be back on?" I have no idea, sorry. (Hundreds of times in that 20 hours!) "Should I shut off my gas?" Do you think you have a broken gas line??? "You're 9-1-1; why don't you know where it was centered and how big it was?" "Close, sir, very close, and really big, too! We haven't gotten the official word from NAWAS yet, sir, sorry!" What I'm thinking: Because I've been too busy answering phone calls like this one to turn on a radio and listen to what YOU could hear if you had a transistor radio....

"How many people are dead?" "Excuse me???" "How many people were killed by the earthquake?" "I have no idea, sir! It was very strong and covered a lot of area! We only handle Monterey County here...." "Oh, I thought you were 9-1-1; that's what I dialled!!!" (Really? And I just happened to intercept your call to 9-1-1, or what?)

"Does PG&E (local power company) know we're out of power here in Carmel Valley???" "Yessir, everyone in Monterey County is without commercial power right now." "Well, that's unacceptable!" Long pause while I think how to respond to that... luckily the caller hangs up in a huff after saying this....

"Will I get a rebate for the length of time I'm without power?" "Uhhhhh, no, sir, you won't be charged for the electricity you DIDN'T use...." "Good!" (Not really my job, being a PG&E spokesperson, but I felt it was a safe answer.)

"Why weren't we WARNED about this earthquake!!!!" Good question, never thought of that one.... somebody should lose their job over it, don't you think? What I said was, "Earthquakes aren't predictable, ma'am." "Why not?" she demanded. "They happen awfully quick..." I manage to say, lamely. "Oh. Well, okay then."

"Will there be a tidal wave?" Ohhh, gawd, something ELSE for me to worry about now.... "I don't think so, sir; usually tsunamis occur on the OTHER side of the ocean from an earthquake." "Well, has anyone warned Japan, then?" "I really don't know sir, thanks for the suggestion!"

Those are just a few, but I thought they were particularly amusing.

Linda Olmstead

Randy's Note: If you haven't gotten the idea by reading these true tales shared by Linda, it is generally not a good idea to call 911 or any public service organization for non-emergencies or for non-essential information during a natural disaster. During a recent snowstorm in Washington State, the phone lines to to the State Patrol office were so jammed with non-emergency calls that people reporting accidents, county 911 centers asking for assistance and news media trying to get information to broadcast to the public were not able to get through the busy signals on any line for hours at a time.

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