If a natural disaster were to hit hard along the Wasatch Front, how prepared would residents be?
It’s a question worth asking given the images of devastating hurricanes, wildfires and a powerful earthquake that have dominated the news in recent weeks.
It’s also one that’s long-nagged government leaders in Salt Lake City and County, where the homes of more than a million Utahns sit precariously perched on a fault line that could someday crack without warning.
Such a disaster would quickly overwhelm government agencies, Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski said on Monday at a joint city/county news conference.
“Our success, our best hope is neighbors helping neighbors,” she said.
To that end, city and county leaders have launched SAFE — or Safe Schools Aid Families in Emergencies — a program designed to organize communities in the wake of a disaster.
Under the SAFE plan, neighborhood elementary schools are transformed into receiving centers where families and residents can gather after an event such as an earthquake.
“Getting prepared needs to happen at the individual level and the community level,” Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams added at the news conference. “Emergency managers can only do so much.”
The city and the county, along with their respective emergency management experts developed the program over the past three years with the help of school districts and the Utah Chapter of the American Red Cross, officials said.
The program is now active in every Salt Lake County elementary school — 27 in Salt Lake City and 142 in cities across the county — and more than 400 residents have been trained, officials said.
Each school is also equipped with a “Just in Case” kit that includes basic instructions for organizing a volunteer effort to help families, conduct area damage assessments and connect with the right city, county or state emergency response teams or medical care.
Seismic forecast reports, including one from the Working Group on Utah Earthquake Probabilities from 2016, show a 43 percent probability that a major quake — magnitude 6.75 or greater — will strike the Wasatch Front in the next 50 years.
That report was particularly critical of the safety of Utah schools in such an event, citing a 2011 survey that found 60 percent of all school need seismic retrofitting, and about 85 percent of those are believed to have a near-100 percent chance of collapsing in a quake.
City and County emergency preparedness experts say safety was a concern in selecting community gathering sites, but schools may not present as much a risk as some fear. All new schools have been built to the latest seismic standards and a majority of older school have been retrofitted in recent years, Salt Lake City’s emergency preparedness manger John Flynt said.
That’s not to say the projections of earthquake prognosticators are wrong, Flynt said, but city and county assessment suggest schools are “at least as likely to survive as any other structures.”
The SAFE plan allows for emergency responders to better prioritize and focus on the community’s most dire needs and quickly mobilizes neighborhoods to help their own residents.
“We’ve tested this program about a half a dozen times,” Salt Lake County Emergency Manager Clint Mecham said. “It works.”
All it takes, is the willingness and participation so that communities can adjust to a “new normal after a disaster,” he said.
Salt Lake City School Board member Melissa Ford is among those talking up the SAFE program in her Bonneville Elementary School neighborhood. What she likes best about the program, she said, is that its structure allows for anyone to take charge even without an ounce of training.
The use of elementary schools, she added, is a “genius idea.”
“Our children are going to be there anyway,” said the mother of four, who annually participates in the statewide earthquake preparedness drill. “That’s where parents are going to come.”
The program also makes Ford feel like her family will be safer if a disaster comes.
“It’s given us a framework for how to talk about what to do,” she said.
City and county residents can find additional information about SAFE at www.safeutah.org.