Local community groups tend to highlight how they’re preparing for the emergencies that are more frequent in Sonoma County — namely, fires and floods. However, struck with a different kind of emergency with COVID-19, the county’s local Citizens Organized to Prepare for Emergencies (COPE) and Map Your Neighborhood groups, as well as Community Emergency Response Teams (CERTs), are leaning into the core of their preparedness measures and training.

“With COVID-19, then it was kind of like, ‘we need to mobilize,’” said Priscilla Abercombie, co-leader of the Fitch Mountain COPE program in Healdsburg.

“We know who the people are that are disabled; we know there are people that need help, so we need to mobilize,” she said.

One of the foundational components of neighborhood COPE groups is a database of neighborhood information that tends to include contact information, as well as special accommodations that folks may need in an emergency, or any other information that may denote that a person is part of a vulnerable population.

Abercrombie said that while the Fitch Mountain group has referenced its lists of neighborhood residents who may need help while sheltering in place and made phone calls to check in with them, she hasn’t seen an outpouring of people requesting help.

“I think it’s early enough in the epidemic where there’s not as much happening. I don’t think the other shoe has really dropped yet,” Abercombie said, noting that she thinks people still have a good amount of food in their house and haven’t reached the point where they need to start looking for groceries.

A month from now she expects things to be different.

The Fitch Mountain COPE group as well as The Cottages COPE group in Cloverdale, are both still trying to figure out what the role of COPE is when it comes to COVID-19.

“We’re making phone calls just to check in, but mostly we’re geared toward a wildfire or earthquake,” said Janet Horrall, the lead contact for COPE in the Cottages. “So far we haven’t had much input about how to help people with the coronavirus.”

The Fitch Mountain group has been sending out emails to its members that include information from local and regional government and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Horrall said that she hopes to start something similar for her group.

“We don’t see that many people out and about in our neighborhood unless they’re walking their dogs, but I think Louise (Young)  is putting together an e-blast to see if people need anything,” she said. “It’s a good way for people to get to know your neighbors and reach out to people.” 

In west county, Map Your Neighborhood groups in Sebastopol are also relying on longstanding connections that they’ve built with neighbors as ways of checking in with each other.

“In some of the existing neighborhood groups that have been running for years or months, what they’re finding is that some of those initial connections that they made allowed them to really know who had particular needs that they wanted to go and check up on, because maybe they had a particular frailty or someone in a family who had particular issues,” said Skip Jirrels, public safety outreach coordinator for the city of Sebastopol.

Since neighbors have established a connection before this point, Jirrels said that people have found that their neighbor is more likely to pick up the phone and respond to a check-in, because there’s a pre-established “degree of familiarity.”

One challenge for his group and others though, has been finding a way to communicate that observes shelter in place guidelines. Jirrels said that his neighborhood, for example, has started to look more toward communicating through things like NextDoor

“People are exploring different ways to be able to make sure they can get the message out that if people need something, we’re willing to help,” he said.

“What they’re seeing is, ‘Wow I guess I need to reach out in a different way,’ or ‘We need to use these other means.’

Part of what I see (neighborhoods) dealing with is moving around the possibilities of trying to figure out how to connect, while knowing that connection is what they need to figure out the most,” he added.

One way that people have tried to connect is through the creation of a Ham radio group that will serve as a fallback for emergency communication, Jirrels said.

Jirrels echoed the sentiments of Abercrombie and Horrall, noting that trying to reach out and communicate during a pandemic is different than reaching out during a fire or flood.

“I think what’s happening is that when people go to reach out, how the resistance may be greater because this is COVID-19,” Jirrels said. “There’s a different sort of reaction that people have. We’re no longer preparing for something, we’re responding to something.”

While neighbors are checking in on neighbors, Jirrels said that he doesn’t see Map Your Neighborhood groups as the type to mobilize. Rather, they want to focus on the issues and challenges in their more immediate communities.

Offering to mobilize is north county CERT, who recently sent a letter to the county offering their services.

According to Geoff Peters, a trained CERT program manager in Cloverdale who’s taken the reins on north county CERT trainings, CERT’s letter to the Sonoma County Office of Emergency Services outlines various stages that they can help at: checking in with vulnerable populations via phone to make sure people are healthy and don’t need immediate assistance; identifying those who need assistance and the urgency at which they need it; providing assistance to the elderly or infirmed; and, if first responders begin to get overwhelmed, have CERTs wear protective gear and transport people to medical facilities.

“The county has not responded yet to those suggestions for the use of CERTs, mainly because it doesn’t appear that there’s that urgent need right now. The number of cases is small enough right now that there’s nothing overwhelming,” Peters said. “I’m not at all surprised that they haven’t said ‘yes,’ but we’ve made that offer to the county.”

After completing training, people in the CERT program receive personal protective gear, including an N95 mask, protective gloves and goggles. Peters said that the organization recently donated masks to a hospital in Santa Rosa, to the Cloverdale Fire Protection District and associated medical units and to Healdsburg District Hospital.

Additionally, both Cloverdale and Geyserville fire districts are able to activate CERT, per Gov. Gavin Newsom’s emergency declaration. As of press time, neither agency had done so.

“This pandemic is very new for everybody, and I think the county as well as the city as well as the state are providing the best information as they can, but what it’s showing is the holes in each individual neighborhood to connect to each other,” Jirrels said.


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