Palo Alto Weekly

News - March 7, 2007

Disaster preparedness is big business in Palo Alto

City leaders hear success story of Roche, which is ready for earthquake or flu

by Becky Trout

When the Big One hits, pharmaceutical giant Roche and many other large Palo Alto companies will be ready.

But the city's smaller businesses and nonprofits -- cafes, shops and offices with few employees -- don't have the time or money to cache medical supplies, practice emergency drills or develop disaster recovery plans, several city leaders pointed out.

"We're not horribly ill-prepared, but we're kind of in the 'how should we approach it' stage," said Sandra Lonnquist, president of the Palo Alto Chamber of Commerce, which is primarily composed of small businesses. "It's so overwhelming; I think we kind of play ostrich."

Ensuring that businesses of all sizes prepare for a possible pandemic flu, earthquake, attack or other catastrophe is one of the goals of the city's Red Ribbon Task Force on Disaster Planning, a 50-member group that is working to improve Palo Alto's disaster readiness.

One aspect of the effort may be networking with the large businesses, such as Roche or Varian Medical Systems, to see how they can share their knowledge, skills and supplies their smaller counterparts, Palo Alto City Councilwoman Judy Kleinberg said.

Kleinberg established the Red Ribbon Task Force last year during her mayoral term and she, along with her colleagues and top city staff, visited Palo Alto's Roche campus last week to learn more about the corporation's disaster plans and its efforts toward sustainability, which is another top goal of the council.

And according to the presentation given by Roche's Alex Haedrich, environmental health and safety director for the Switzerland-based company, Roche is ready.

"The city has made it very clear to us that businesses are going to be fairly low on their priority list," Haedrich said, eliciting chuckles from city leaders. "Since the 1989 earthquake we have put a lot of time and effort into making sure we are ready for the next big earthquake."

They have a primary command center armed with ready-to-go checklists, maps of the 60-acre campus and its utilities, and a magnetized white board to track volunteers and prioritize tasks. There's also a seismically safe back-up center.

All 1,000 employees participate in semi-annual drills, and Roche maintains a corps of emergency response volunteers, who are required to participate in regular training, Haedrich said.

Roche Palo Alto has about $300,000 worth of respirators and hard hats, energy bars and giant water vats, six-channel radios and a satellite cell phone. They also have specialty emergency equipment such as pipe plugs, air bags and telescoping cameras.

They've educated employees about the potential avian flu pandemic and planned for the company's response.

"Our plan is really designed to be independent," said Keith Sonberg, Roche's senior director of site operations.

Roche's commitment to environmental sustainability was also of interest to council members and a personal passion of Sonberg's, who doesn't even carry business cards because they are made of paper.

Since 2000, the company has slashed its energy usage and switched to using primarily recycled and used materials in nearly all of its operations, Sonberg told city leaders.

They also compost food waste on site, replaced lush lawns with drought resistant plants, and figured out how to recycle restroom paper towels.

All janitorial supplies are also environmentally friendly, Sonberg said.

It's the responsibility of successful corporations like Roche and relatively affluent people, such as those in Palo Alto, to make a difference in the world, he said.

Just a little effort, by everyone, will make a big impact, Sonberg said.

Staff Writer Becky Trout can be e-mailed at btrout@paweekly.com.

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