Earthquakes, floods and cyberthreats top the list of potential dangers facing Palo Alto, according to a new report that lays out strategies for dealing with future disasters.
Prepared by the city's Office of Emergency Services with assistance from the consulting firm Dewberry, the report lists the leading threats that the city can expect to face in the years ahead and recommends strategies for addressing these threats. Known as the "Threat Hazard Identification and Risk Assessment," the report "will be used to inform ongoing planning efforts throughout the city," according to a staff report the City Council will consider Monday, Sept. 22.
"A continuous cycle of assessing capabilities, plans, and programs and incorporating the results into future THIRAs allows a jurisdiction to manage changes to its risk landscape," the report states. "It also provides the means to educate and update individuals, families, businesses, organizations, community leaders, and senior officials on the risks facing a community."
To determine Palo Alto's emergency-prevention priorities, the city and its consultants listed a menu of potential disasters, in various categories, and asked a committee of stakeholders to score each disaster based on its likelihood to occur in Palo Alto. The committee included staff from various city departments as well as officials from Stanford University, the Menlo Park Fire Protection District, Palo Alto Medical Foundation and members of surrounding law-enforcement agencies.
When it comes to natural disasters, earthquakes, floods and severe storms were ranked at the top of the list, according to the committee, which scored potential disasters based on both impact and probability. The greatest hazards when it comes to earthquakes, the report states, are associated with "fault rupture" and "ground shaking" though there are also "liquefaction hazards" east of U.S. Highway 101 because of the high water-content of the soil."
Flooding is also "expected to continue to occur in Palo Alto," particularly tidal flooding from levees near the Baylands and from creeks. The city, along with the entire Bay Area, is also subject to increasing flood risk because of rising sea levels, the report states.
The working group also considered a list of likely technological hazards, with airplane accidents, hazardous-material spills and urban fires deemed the highest threats. In the category of "human-caused threats," meanwhile, the highest threats were in the categories of "major crime," "cyber attack" and "workplace violence."
With cyber attacks, one of the difficulties is that "its origin can be virtually anyone, virtually anywhere," the report states. This includes "bot-network operators" who take over multiple computer systems to coordinate attacks; criminal groups looking to make money; disgruntled organization insiders with unrestricted access to computer data; and hackers who break into networks "for the thrill of the challenge or for bragging rights in the hacker community."
The report notes that given its location in Silicon Valley, Palo Alto is "home to many large companies that could be subject to cyber attack." The city government mitigates this threat by having three three levels of security on its computers to prevent cyber attacks: an anti-virus system on desktops and laptops; a malware protection system for Web and email systems; and a firewall for the IT network. The city also has "access control" measures such as ID cards and badges to prevent unauthorized access to sensitive areas.
The report suggests, however that these measure do not entirely eliminate the threat.
"Humans are the weakest link in a chain of cybersecurity," the threat-assessment report states. "It remains difficult to continuously monitor and manage human/operator vulnerability."
To address this weakness, the report notes, the City has deployed an online security training program, which all employees are required to complete annually.
For each of these disasters, the report lays out the city's current methods for mitigating the threats. It also includes recommendations that the city should adopt to minimize the danger. These include constructing a new public-safety building to replace the small and seismically unsound police headquarters at City Hall; conducting training and emergency-prevention exercises with private-sector entities such as Stanford Industrial Park and Stanford Shopping Center; and "cultivating a culture of preparedness and community connection" through broad outreach to schools, city staff and other community stakeholders.
The report also notes in its conclusion that the city and its local partners "should be commended for the tremendous capabilities currently available to prevent, protect against, mitigate, respond to, and recover from hazards and threats." It lauds the city's partnership with Stanford University, Stanford Hospital and neighboring jurisdictions and for the bountiful opportunities residents have to contribute through volunteer programs such as CERT, the Neighborhood and Block Preparedness and Coordinator program; the Palo Alto Auxiliary Communications Services; and the Palo Alto Medical Reserve Corps.