04/14/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Creating Community in LA: Emergency Preparedness

"My ideas have undergone a process of emergence by emergency. When they are needed badly enough, they are accepted." --Buckminster Fuller

When I was 10, a woman from our neighborhood whom my parents had never met came knocking with her pre-teen daughter in tow. She asked my mom if her kid could watch my dad, the songwriter Carl Sigman, write a song. My mom's deadpan reply: "He does most of his writing on the john."

What if the very idea of community connection leaves you cold? You don't have kids or pets, the street is just a place to pick up your mail and the idea of getting to know your neighbors fills your heart with dread. In the great tradition of Frederic Nietzsche, George Carlin and -- to a lesser extent -- my dad, you're a curmudgeon, and only being left alone can make you feel truly at home.

But, to paraphrase John Donne, no man can be an island. Surely you want to be linked up with neighbors in case of emergencies like earthquakes and fires. That way, when the crisis is over, you can return to your hermetic ways in one piece.

Feedback from my column last week about neighborhood email groups reveals that most parts of Los Angeles don't have effective means of neighborhood-wide communication, let alone structured plans for emergency preparedness.

At least one area -- Upper Nichols Canyon (UNC) -- does have a remarkable plan. (If there are others, please let us know by commenting on this site.) This nest of 500 or so homes east of Laurel Canyon and west of Beachwood Canyon boasts a robust Association, led by president Susan Mullins and her "leadership team" of dedicated volunteers. Susan reports that the group has grown from a meeting of some 25 neighbors in a living room in July 2007 to now more than 450 participating neighbors representing some 80 percent of the area's households.

Cristin Lindsay, who handles communications for the Association, points to two anchors for the emergency program: an email group and a website. The key word is "preparedness," Cristin says. "Email and our website play their biggest role before disaster strikes, so we can get the word out about training, tips and best practices, share stories that inspire our neighbors to take steps towards preparedness and build relationships and clout with city agencies integral to disaster planning."

Basic features that underpin the group's efforts include:

1. Email lists targeted at the whole community as well as specific blocks.

2. Links on the website to emergency preparedness resources like the Los Angeles Fire Department's "Ready! Set! Go! Personal Wildfire Action Plan."

3. A sophisticated database which tracks emergency contact information about residents to keep track of households that may need special attention in an emergency because of kids, pets, disabilities, non-English primary languages, or residents who live alone. (This information is tightly restricted to protect residents' privacy.)

4. That same database tracks gas shut-off locations and out-of-neighborhood emergency contacts for each household.

Association leaders keep a hard copy of this data in case of an earthquake or other natural disaster when power and internet access are out. With this information frequently updated, the organization then has a four part approach to emergency preparedness:

1. Disaster preparedness training.

2. Resource and skills inventory.

3. Emergency action plans in accordance with LAFD's procedure.

4. Emergency communications -- if wire lines and cell phone infrastructure is not operational, alternative notification systems and related plans.

(More details here.)

The organization is particularly proud of a 2008 training exercise -- conducted in coordination with LAFD, LAPD, Hollywood Hills West Neighborhood Council, the lower Nichols Canyon area, the Willow Glen community, and many other city agencies -- in which over 500 neighbors practiced evacuating the narrow, twisting canyon to a staged evacuation shelter at Hollywood High School. Pictures here.

Not surprisingly, Cristin is now considering incorporating social media tools like Twitter and Facebook to help get information out to residents who use those networks.

If all this seems way beyond your time, energy, commitment and resources -- the UNCA doesn't charge dues, but does accept donations -- start small. Define a modest mission, use an affordable mass email tool like Infacta GroupMail or Google Groups, hold small gatherings to build a sense of community, mix communications methods -- email and flyers and in-person -- and seek out volunteers with web design and development skills. Then ally with city resources such as the Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) -- go here for more on CERT -- LAFD, LAPD, Neighborhood Councils and LA DWP to leverage free or affordable resources, training and advice.