County's Emergency Preparedness in Question

Share |
(Sacramento, CA)
Tuesday, November 20, 2007

The thought must have crossed everyone’s mind during last month’s Southern California wildfires.  What if something like that happened here?  How prepared are local officials for a fire -- or a flood?  After all, two years after Hurricane Katrina, Sacramento faces the highest flood risk of any major U.S. city.

Well, it turns out Sacramento County’s disaster plan is at least several years out-of-date.  And its transportation and shelter plans are just drafts.  The lack of preparedness on paper raises questions of whether the county is giving its emergency planners the staff and money to do the job.


The Plan
This (thump) is a copy of Sacramento County ’s Multi-Hazard Disaster Plan – dated July, 2002.  It’s more than 200 pages, double-sided.  And if you flip through it (sound of pages being flipped), looking at the bottom of each page, you’ll see various dates flash by – showing the last time those particular sections were updated: July ’96, May ’98, November ‘99.
And it shows.  There are pages on how to respond to floods and earthquakes – but not wildfires.  The map of hazardous materials sites is more than 10 years old.  There’s a page entitled “Energy Crisis” that’s left blank.  And the section on Terrorism?  It’s less than two pages long; it doesn’t discuss protecting the State Capital; and it doesn’t even mention the 9/11 attacks.  Not that it could; that part was written five years earlier.
Bill Martin: “It’s prudent and it’s appropriate for every local government entity, jurisdiction to have an emergency management program.”

That program should include a plan, training, and more, says Bill Martin.  He runs Yolo County’s office of emergency services.  Supervisors approved their disaster plan earlier this year.  Martin doesn’t want to criticize Sacramento County directly.  But, he says, having an updated disaster plan is a big part of preparing for emergencies.
Martin: “It is a guidepost; it is a direction and an intention of how that jurisdiction plans and hopes to be able to respond.”
Sacramento County also lacks a plan for transportation, or care and shelter.  Those documents are just drafts right now – the Board of Supervisors hasn’t approved them, so they’re not public record.


"It's what we do to prepare"

Rick Martinez: “These plans are just that – they’re plans.”
Rick Martinez is Bill Martin’s counterpart at the city and county of Sacramento.  He ran the Sacramento Metro Fire Department for a decade, and led all of FEMA’s urban search and rescue teams at Ground Zero on 9/11.  He says it’s up to local officials – and the public – to be prepared for disasters.
Martinez: “That plan itself is not gonna get anybody out of a burning building or a flooded home. It’s gonna sit on the shelf.  But it’s what we do to prepare.”
And Martinez is confident that local government and law enforcement officials know what to do.  He points to large-scale training drills, and a list of about 70 potential shelter sites around the county.



The Sacramento region also has the same system that helped San Diego County evacuate a half-million people last month.
Debroha Kriske: “Okay, so what we have is called Reverse911 and it’s an interactive, community notification system.”
That’s Debroha Kriske with the Sacramento Police Department.  This Reverse911 software automatically calls a list of homes and businesses in a designated area – and plays a message recorded by local officials.
Reverse911 Message: “This is a public safety message from the Sacramento County In-Home Supportive Services …”
Kriske recorded this one during the heat wave last summer.
Reverse911 Message: “…If you are having difficulties with the heat or need assistance to stay cool, please call …”
That time, the system made 670 calls in just over 10 minutes.  Kriske says Reverse911 alone can’t reach everyone – for instance, you can’t sign your cell phone up yet.  But, she says, it’s a huge help.
Kriske: “There’s no way for us as a department or any agency to be able to send manpower out to evacuate thousands of homes.  So you hit the send message and it starts calling all those residents or businesses.” 

A Question of Resources

So while Sacramento County has some disaster response in place, officials privately acknowledge the disaster plan isn’t where it should be – though they won’t say so on tape.  Mark Ghilarducci has worked for FEMA and the state’s office of emergency services; he’s now a consultant writing the county’s evacuation plan.  He says the problem is resources – like money and staff.
Mark Ghilarducci: “Six is way too low for a county this size.”
That’s right – six people work in the county’s Office of Emergency Services.  San Francisco, with a little over half Sacramento County’s population and a tiny fraction of its area, has 11 staffers.  And besides federal and state grants, Martinez gets just $1.7 million from the County – out of a general fund that’s more than 2-and-a-half billion dollars.  Ghilarducci says those decisions are made above Rick Martinez’s level.
Ghilarducci: “It’s important that government leaders – mayors and city councils and boards of supervisors, county executive officers – identify emergency management and crisis consequence management as a top priority.”
And when they don’t, he says, something’s gotta give.  So training and emergency drills get time and attention.  Clearly, the county’s disaster plans have not.


The County's Reponse
Nav Gill: “We do the very best with the resources we have.”
Nav Gill is Sacramento County’s Chief Operating Officer.  He says it’s impossible for any government to give all its departments the funding they need.  But he says Rick Martinez has the staff and resources to do the job.
Gill: “We do have a plan.  It is being updated. And it’s very important for folks to know that if disaster were to happen to us, this county is ready to respond.”
And until that disaster happens, we’ll just have to take the county’s word for it.