On a recent outing, she spotted a man in a wheelchair on Dana Avenue. Risberg rode up to him and asked how he was doing.
"Come to find out, he's alone and doesn't have anyone helping him," said Risberg, a former girls' sports coach. When she got back to her home on Tulip Lane, she worked her neighborhood contacts, who arranged for a resident on the man's street to check in on him each week.
Risberg isn't alone in her watchfulness over fellow residents during the public health crisis. Throughout Palo Alto, neighborhood preparedness coordinators like her — members of the city's Emergency Services Volunteers program — have been fanning out, working the phones and checking in on neighbors.
"We are like little owls when we go out ... keeping our radar sharpened," said Risberg, who's been devoting eight hours a day to the role. "Also, we're like farmers: We dig up things that could be potential problems later and nip them in the bud."
The Emergency Services Volunteers (ESV) were quietly activated by the city on March 23 to aid residents during the pandemic. The program was established citywide more than a decade ago in recognition of the fact that police and fire personnel can't possibly respond to all the calls for help during a disaster. In fact, on an average day, only 24 firefighters are at work in Palo Alto, and as few as eight police officers may be on patrol, according to a program training video. In contrast, ESV members number in the hundreds.
The coronavirus pandemic is the first time the volunteers have been activated for an emergency, though they've stepped up during storms and fire seasons, according to Annette Glanckopf, ESV co-team leader, neighborhood section.
Neighborhood coordinators like Risberg are one of three main types of emergency volunteers, and they oversee the other two: Community Emergency Response Team members, or CERTs, who are trained in skills such as first aid and rescuing victims from wreckage, and block preparedness coordinators, whose purpose is to build a sense of community through communication and events like block parties.
So far during the pandemic, the volunteers have largely provided practical but important aid. They've connected people in need of facemasks with people sewing facemasks, brought meals to shut-ins and checked in on others who are afraid of going out.
"I've seen teenagers offer to get groceries for seniors," Risberg said.
In the South of Midtown neighborhood, overseen by neighborhood coordinator Carl Darling, a block coordinator helped replace an elderly couple's broken water heater.
But volunteers also have provided non-tangible support, lifting spirits by organizing "teddy bear hunts" for children and encouraging daily greeting times, when neighbors come to their front yards, Glanckopf said.
Admittedly, the coronavirus was not the disaster that many volunteers envisioned when they signed up to pitch in during an emergency.
"I've been in this program for over 10 years, and I don't think anyone imagined this would happen," Risberg said.
Mostly, the volunteer group has trained for fires, earthquakes and floods — urgent situations that would require swift and intensive action.
"That's what's been so different about this. With a pandemic, it's continually evolving," she said.
Also, in a pandemic, danger can take the form of false information.
"I feel like a lot of my job is to disseminate good information," said Risberg, who happens to be a retired technical writer. Misinformation can create "that panicky feeling. It's better to empower people with good information."
To that end, she's creating a brochure explaining some overlooked questions, like what's the difference between sanitization and disinfection, and what's the proper concentration of bleach to use to kill the virus but not harm children or pets.
In addition to Palo Alto, a few Midpeninsula cities, including Atherton, have activated their emergency volunteers. Others have not, to the consternation of their volunteers. Lacking direction from their city leaders, some residents have activated themselves, one Menlo Park volunteer said.
The unexpected nature of the pandemic could explain why city leaders have hesitated — and also why some volunteers have jumped in with both feet while others have hung back. Block coordinators and CERTs have different training and skills, Risberg noted.
"People who did the CERT training (wanted to do) triage, search and rescue," said Risberg, herself a trained CERT. "Much more of my (block coordinators) feel like they have a role" during this pandemic.
Within Palo Alto, participation in the city's 40 or so neighborhoods is uneven. The leaders of College Terrace, where there are just three block coordinators, recently put out a call for help via email. Risberg said that she could use 10 to 15 more volunteers to supplement her 25 active ones in Duveneck/St. Francis, the second largest neighborhood in the city.
Darling, of South of Midtown, is responsible for 3,200 residents living between Loma Verde Avenue and East Meadow Drive and between Middlefield Road and Alma Street.
In the 2 1/2 years that he's been the neighborhood coordinator, Darling and his team have built up their cadre of volunteers from six to 40 people. Even so, about half of the blocks in the neighborhood still lack a coordinator to identify those who are elderly or vulnerable or who may have special skills that would be helpful during a crisis.
"It's been a challenge," Darling said of recruitment. "People are leery of being involved for different reasons," from their temporary status as renters in Palo Alto, to mistakenly thinking they're too old, to feeling they're too busy.
But Darling is trying to push back on those notions.
"This is something you do on the side. It doesn't take much time," Darling said. His own role usually has him working up 10 to 12 hours per month, although he's put in more time since the pandemic started, trying to recruit new block coordinators.
"We don't require people to be experts. The main requirement is people who care about people and are willing to help," he said.
He's optimistic that if people understand that they don't need any special skills then more will sign up and take the brief online training course. Since the start of the crisis, the program has garnered interest from more than 80 residents, he noted.
"The good news about the pandemic is it got people willing to think outside of the box, to be thinking of other people," said Darling, who also is a member of the police chief's citizens advisory group. "People being at home fostered this whole thing. People are willing to come out of their cocoon a little bit." n
More information about the Emergency Services Volunteers program is available by calling 650-617-3197 or emailing [email protected] A video overview of the block-coordinator program is posted at youtu.be/TOxf9_rGW1w. To obtain Risberg's COVID-19 FAQ, contact her at [email protected]
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