By: Phil Ting

As we are reminded by the devastating news and images coming out of Japan over the last month, preparedness is the best way to minimize injuries and casualties in the event of a disaster.

The world continues to watch as the toll – human, environmental and economic – continues to grow. To make matters worse, we have read about how first responders in Japan had trouble accessing areas that were hardest hit by the 9.0 earthquake and tsunami in the hours and days immediately following the disaster.

I speak for all San Franciscans when I say that we have been deeply moved by the tragedy in Japan. And I hope that we all do our part to help Japan recover by donating to the many reputable organizations that are spearheading the relief efforts.

One glaring example of San Francisco’s lack of preparedness is the fact that San Francisco does not have a nationally recognized and federally-funded Urban Search and Rescue Task Force.

There are 28 Urban Search and Rescue Task Forces in the United States – many in cities smaller and facing far less risk than San Francisco. Each task force is essentially a partnership between local, state and federal emergency responders as well as various government agencies.

Search and rescue teams are equipped to respond to emergencies and natural disasters within six hours of notification and provide critical support to state and local emergency responders in four main areas: search, rescue, technical support for engineers and medical treatment to victims. After an emergency, task forces begin immediately conducting physical search and rescue operations in collapsed buildings, providing care to trapped victims, employing search and rescue dogs to assist trained professionals, assess hazardous material waste and evaluate the stability of damaged structures. These teams make the difference between life and death, calm or chaos.

Urban Search and Rescue Task Forces have played a critical role in assisting local response teams and saving countless lives following previous major disasters, both nationally and around the world. Instances like the 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, the September 11 attacks on New York City and Washington D.C., and the 2002 Utah Winter Olympics anthrax scare illustrate the need for quick response and highly skilled teams in times of crisis. Urban Search and Rescue Task Forces are also regularly deployed around the world to disaster sites to aid in recovery efforts including most recently in Japan.

Because these teams are regularly being deployed to disaster sites around the world, the Urban Search and Rescue Task Forces are the most highly trained first responders.

Don’t we want the San Francisco Fire Department to share this critical response training and expertise?

In the event of a disaster here in San Francisco, the city would be infinitely better prepared if the San Francisco Fire Department also had the funding and experience of being regularly deployed to disaster zones around the world.

The Bay Area has two urban search and rescue task forces – the Oakland Fire Department and the Menlo Park Fire Department – that will respond in the case of large disasters. Yet, when the next large earthquake does strike, San Francisco will likely be cut off from the rest of the Bay Area and rescue crews for hours or even days. And to the extent these departments could even make it to San Francisco over damaged bridges and freeways, they will certainly be busy in their own jurisdictions.

As we have been reminded by the earthquake and tsunami in Japan, the minutes, hours and days immediately following a large-scale natural disaster are the most critical. With every minute that passes our odds get worse. Our best chance of saving lives is by making sure that the first responders can get to effected areas as quickly and efficiently as possible.

It is shocking that San Francisco – a city that experts predict has a 63% chance of experiencing another major earthquake within the next two decades – does not have its own urban task force. And when you see the images coming out of Japan, it is too easy to imagine a scenario in which the bridges and roads leading into our city become inaccessible – cutting San Francisco off from the urban search and rescue teams that are tasked with saving lives.

In 2010, the federal government distributed almost $30 million to urban search and rescue task forces around the country. Applications are considered every year and in order for San Francisco to start our own task force, we need to apply for funding from FEMA and meet the National Response Framework set forth by the National Incident Management System (NIMS). Rather than wait another year and risk leaving the city vulnerable and unprepared for a disaster, San Francisco should begin the process of applying immediately.

The average amount of funding awarded to a task force is over $1 million – no small amount when the difference is life and death. Considering the risks we face, San Francisco clearly deserves a part of this federal funding.

Every minute matters during an emergency or large-scale disaster. Having an Urban Search and Rescue Task Force in the city of San Francisco just makes sense. Please join me in calling for the addition of a new task force right here in San Francisco.