The firestorms of 2003 and 2007 sparked discussion across the San Diego community about emergency preparedness. According to several of the agencies involved in local disaster control, that discussion has turned to action, leaving San Diego more prepared than ever to handle unexpected crises.
A December Daily Transcript executive roundtable brought together representatives from more than a dozen of those agencies. Topics of discussion weren’t limited to fire, though. National security risks, terrorism and earthquake preparedness also ignited conversation.
The fires did make up the bulk reflections, however, as mitigation steps taken since then have largely aided countywide efforts to better deal with emergencies of all kinds.
“In San Diego, we’ve taken a very collaborative, coordinated approach toward emergency preparedness so that we have a Unified Disaster Council where all the cities in the county, as well as our partners in the other sectors … all work collaboratively,” said Ron Lane, director of the county Office of Emergency Services.
Sparked by events like 9/11 and the wildfires, the regional approach, Lane said, has worked well so far. Nearly all the major systems set in place, such as the automated mass notification system, Alert San Diego, have been made available to all areas in the county.
Lane said anywhere from 40 percent to 50 percent of locals are truly prepared or have taken significant steps, including brush-clearing measures, to prepare for an emergency.
However, there are still a few kinks to work out with the disaster council, a joint powers authority developed under state law. Currently, it’s difficult to formally include representation from the county’s numerous Native American tribes.
“We’re invited as a guest, yet we’re a major player,” said Don Butz, fire chief for the Viejas fire department. “It’s not the county’s fault … but the tribe is a sovereign nation. There’s a question there if we can’t join that JPA as a voting member because then that erodes our sovereignty.”
But there’s a way the tribe has been able to achieve similar outcomes as members -- through mutual aid agreements between tribes and other local agencies.
In the past -- including during the 2003 and 2007 fires that burned on several tribal reservations and surrounding communities -- when Butz wanted to send equipment or personnel to help fight blazes outside reservation lines, the answer was, “No.” Today, several of the large tribes, including Pauma, Pala, San Pasqual and Rincon, have such agreements with other firefighting departments, meaning that one hurdle has been overcome. But as with the Unified Disaster Council, other hurdles remain that are currently being addressed.
Throughout the process, the tribes have worked to help accelerate the county’s emergency preparedness by promoting collaboration between agencies.
Before the 2003 Cedar Fire, an eight-hour group “wild land” drill was held annually by several of the North County fire departments, including the tribes’. The reservations were offered as a place to host the drills. Since 2003, the model for the smaller drill has been expanded to include much of the entire county’s departments and now includes 100 fire engines and more than 1,000 firefighters in four days of expanded training. Even San Diego Gas & Electric contributed to and attended the training last year.
“You want an example of a success story, that is a success story,” Butz said.
Barona Fire Chief Randy Sandoval called it a possible “turning point.”
The fires also prompted the county Board of Supervisors to create, and then funnel millions of dollars into, the San Diego County Fire Authority. As a result, the county has more than doubled its number of volunteer firefighters, said Kevin O’Leary, deputy fire chief with San Diego’s unit of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire).
It appears there were other turning points in local readiness as well. The events of Sept. 11, 2001 certainly played a role among them, many of the roundtable participants agreed.
“The preparedness pendulum has shifted several times over the past 10 years,” Lane said. “Prior to 9/11, emergency preparedness was largely a natural disaster-type activity occurring in San Diego, as well as the rest of the country.”
After 9/11, though, everything dramatically shifted to the homeland security component, with more than $70 million in federal money coming to San Diego in the last nine years. All such money had to go toward homeland security measures. But after Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast, a balance has been struck. Roughly equal amounts can go toward both natural disasters and homeland security.
Also since then, OES has implemented a variety of strategies for dealing with emergencies. Among the improvements is the addition of a regional terrorism threat assessment center -- a collaboration between the FBI, local sheriffs, local police and border patrol.
“In emergency response, it is a collaboration -- it is bringing people together. During the wildfires, for example, in our EOC (Emergency Operations Center), we had over 70 different organizations,” Lane said. “You need that kind of cooperation with the tribes, the water authority, San Diego Gas & Electric and all the cities … We kind of joke that our mission is like E-Harmony. Our mission is to bring people together.”
Tom Leonard, a 33-year veteran of the Chula Vista Police Department and now the emergency services coordinator for the city, came to a deeper understanding of the importance of being on the same page as other public safety entities after the 2003 fires.
“I believe that we had really given ICS (incident command system) lip service up to that point,” Leonard said. “When I watched how we operated with ICS, we fumbled -- a lot. We weren’t as sharp as our fellow partners in fire.”
By the 2007 fires, CVPD had mandated training in ICS.
Pointing out his city’s standardized response to different organizations, its training and its exercising process, David Harrison, the emergency preparedness manger for Carlsbad, said standardization in preparedness training has also improved locally since 9/11.
Prior to 9/11, he said, California was already making great strides in standardization with programs like SEMS, the Standardized Emergency Management System, which was modeled in the creation of NIMS, the National Incident Management System. But since 9/11, he’s noticed local agencies and cities taking similar initiative.
“This standardization has helped promote interoperability between jurisdictions, which has facilitated the mutual aid process.”
OES has also begun a private-public partnership that includes more than 100 private business organizations working with OES to be prepared for disaster.
The importance of private enterprise -- and even government agencies like the water authority -- often goes overlooked when considering emergency preparedness and response, several participants said.
Joe Cornell, the government business development manager for Hawthorne Caterpillar, said Hawthorne looks to work more effectively with local emergency-related entities through its new emergency response and disaster recover plan. Hawthorne could play a vital role in the event of a disaster with its large volume of equipment. It has one of the largest inventories of stand-up power generation up to 3 megawatts.
“In the 2007 fires, a lot of this was reactive and we didn’t have this plan in place,” Cornell said.
Hawthorne CAT has also been coordinating with public utilities to keep generators on hold in its yard for when power is lost.
And in the event of a water shortage, the San Diego County Water Authority is embarking on an emergency storage project -- a major string of about 20 projects that could further mitigate post-emergency issues by making water available to the region for months should imported water deliveries be interrupted.
“Water may not be viewed as a first responder, as a big player, but we are,” said Gary Eaton, director of operations and maintenance for SDCWA. “We comply with NIMS. One of our key performance indicators is to ensure that our training is at 90 percent or greater on our staff.”
Don Butz, Fire Chief
Joe Cornell, Government Business Development Manager
Curt Crook, Emergency Response Team Project Manager
Dan Dambach, Field Services Manager
Vista Irrigation District Gary Eaton, Director of Operations & Maintenance
San Diego County Water Authority
David Harrison, Emergency Preparedness Manager
City of Carlsbad
Tom Kennedy, Operations Manager
Olivenhain Municipal Water District
Ron Lane, Director
County of San Diego Office of Emergency Services
Tom Leonard, Emergency Services Coordinator
City of Chula Vista
Kevin O'Leary, Deputy Chief
California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, San Diego Unit
Randy Sandoval, Fire Chief
Tuukut Sass, Utilities Manager
Rincon Band of Mission Indians
Lisa Stevenson, Captain
Rincon Fire Department