When terrorists let loose a deadly airborne disease at a crowded concert in San Jose -- the story behind the Golden Guardian disaster drill Nov. 14 -- Palo Alto officials and volunteers snapped into action, the City Council heard from participants Monday night.
"It was amazing to me how many people took part in it and how well it went," Councilman Jack Morton said.
The exercise was a "fantastic success," according to Vicki Running, administrative director of the Office of Service Continuity and Disaster Planning at Stanford University Medical Center.
Nonetheless, many lessons were learned from the day-long event that involved more than 160 city staff members, community volunteers and representatives from Palo Alto Medical Foundation and Stanford, among other organizations.
City officials and volunteers set up stations to receive and distribute mock antibiotics, actually blue M&Ms, in a pretend race with death.
A key lesson was that the community and officials can work together, Councilwoman Judy Kleinberg, an advocate for emergency preparedness, said of the drill.
Initially, officials expressed some trepidation about working closely with neighborhood leaders, she said.
But this exercise showed that neighbors could serve as useful communication links, several volunteers agreed.
The drill underlined the inadequacy of the city's Emergency Operations Center, located in the police headquarters in City Hall, Police Chief Lynne Johnson said.
It was cramped and uncomfortable with poor ventilation, she said.
It was also tricky to hear anything on the phone, a shortcoming that could be fixed with new headphones, she said. The computer and printers in the center also need to be upgraded, she said.
But the most critical lesson was that the method for distributing medication didn't work, Johnson said.
In an emergency, panicked, desperate people would make it hard for the police and doctors to keep the medication secure, both Johnson and Running reported.
"We would be totally incapable of having enough police staff to provide security at all points of distribution," Johnson said of the "PODs."
Johnson and Midtown neighborhood leader Annette Ashton praised the performance of Stanford's radio station, KZSU, which provided key information.
A Red Cross spokeswoman thanked the city for its commitment to emergency preparedness and asked it to continue annual exercises.
The exercise takes a lot of staff time so the city is considering hiring a consultant to help plan regular exercises, Johnson said. She said she did not know how much the 2007 exercise cost.
In addition, the city plans to spend about $50,000 for food and water supplies for emergency staff, $45,000 for radio and other communication upgrades and an additional $250,000 to $300,000 for a mobile command center, Assistant to the City Manager Kelly Morariu said.