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Disaster Preparation Becomes Do-It-Yourself

Where have all of Marin County's first-responders gone?

A recent report by the Marin County Grand Jury indirectly raised (yet another) question about affordable housing in Novato, one having nothing to do with density, crime and quality of life. The report never mentioned affordable housing — not by name — but it most definitely outlined the consequences of runaway median home prices.

According to the grand jury, local citizens could be in a world a hurt the next time the earth shakes. Marin’s ability to respond to major disaster will be greatly compromised by a simple fact: None of the county-employed “first-responders” live in Marin County.

Because somewhere between 70 and 80 percent of county-employed public safety workers live somewhere else — some as far away as Kern, Butte, Sutter and Nevada counties, reports the Marin Independent Journal. When the Big One comes, Marin County cities likely will be on their own for two, maybe three days. And which Marin County city do you think has the greatest percentage of non-local public safety workers? That’s right: affordable Novato.

Only 9 percent of Novato’s police officers live in Novato, the IJ reported. Ninety of the city's paramedics and firefighters live somewhere else, too. No more than 33 percent are on duty at one time.

The county median income for a family of four is $99,400. Novato’s firefighters earn a median of $127,308, a figure that raised some eyebrows when it was released in February. Surely they should be able to live here. They don’t have a prayer of getting into below-market-rate housing (only four of the 28 housing developments presently listed as Novato’s database of affordable housing are open to families making more than 60 percent of the median; that’s $59,640 for a family of four), but Novato’s most recent median single-family home price ($551,712) works out to a monthly mortgage payment of about $2,800, within reach on a salary that nets about $7,000 each month.

Then again, the median home price in Gridley, Butte County, for the period stretching from March to May was $127,327. Firefighters, cops and EMTs might be able to “afford” living in Marin County, but with flexible schedules that erase commute issues, they don’t “have” to. Instead, they can choose to jettison the oppressive mortgages of the Bay Area and actually live well — something more than a few of us have dreamed of doing, if only our schedules allowed it.

Firefighters, paramedics and law enforcement officers don’t work 9-to-5. They work long (often 24-hour) shifts with several days off in-between, affording them the luxury of living in one place and working in another — a welcome distance for workers whose jobs are far more intense than “normal” work.  Some communities actually discourage local-based service workers in the interest of creating space between first-responders’ very public professional lives and their private ones.

Still, we’re talking about service jobs. What good are they if they’re not present to do their service?

In place of local first-responders, many Marin communities have implemented programs designed to replace professional disaster aid with community-based disaster preparedness. The county has several existing programs — Community Emergency Readiness Training (CERT), Get Ready Marin and Marin Search and Rescue volunteers are among them. Even so, the grand jury concluded that “there is insufficient interagency collaboration.”

The thinking behind CERT-like programs is along the lines of teaching a man to fish instead of cooking him some crab cakes. Their goal is to teach civilians to fill in gaps created when professionals can’t get on site in time. But really; if the Big One hits, how many of us are prepared to be on our own for 72 hours?

Either that or the city and county can devise ways to make living locally more attractive to its employees. Less than a third of the 667 state-mandated affordable housing units Novato must have begun by 2014 are set aside for families making “81 to 120 percent of the county median.” Would the din surrounding affordable housing be as great if that number were higher? 

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