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San Diego Trying To Fill Emergency Preparedness Gaps

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San Diego Trying To Fill Emergency Preparedness Gaps

The city of San Diego is working to update its plans for how to handle major disasters — from terrorist attacks to hazardous materials spills to natural disasters like earthquakes and wildfires. It’s also beefing up the training of city employees on what to do during an emergency.

Why now? An audit released last summer found that many city departments had outdated or inaccurate information in their emergency plans. It also found that city employees need more emergency training and that not enough coordination occurs between the Office of Homeland Security and other city departments.

Homeland Security Audit
A July 2014 audit of San Diego's Office of Homeland Security.
To view PDF files, download Acrobat Reader.

The Office of Homeland Security has until July to correct the lapses cited in audit. The agency is not a federal office, but a city department tucked away on the 15th floor of a building near City Hall. There’s no sign on its door. John Valencia, the office’s director, said that’s partially to avoid any confusion with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

The 13-employee office acts as an umbrella coordinator for all city departments in an emergency. It’s responsible for creating the city’s emergency plan, training city staff, and working with federal and state governments and the rest of San Diego County on preparing for emergencies and communicating with them when disaster strikes. It also oversees the city’s two Emergency Operations Centers, which are bunkers in downtown and Kearny Mesa equipped with backup electricity and special internet systems to connect with other government agencies.

In addition to its $1.7 million annual budget, the department oversees up to $40 million a year in federal homeland security grants, Valencia said.

City Councilwoman Marti Emerald, who heads the City Council’s public safety committee, said San Diego has always been behind the curve in its security plans.

“I'm not pointing fingers at anybody, but it just didn't seem to be in the culture that that couldn't happen here,” Emerald said. “We’re not so much unsafe but not as prepared as we all need to be. Sometimes the message goes in one ear and goes out the other, I think. We assume that disaster happens to somebody else.”

But now changes are being made to the city’s homeland security office. It’s being reorganized and given more authority to make sure the city’s disaster plans are strong. These changes are important because San Diego is vulnerable to disasters in numerous ways, Valencia said. On top of natural disasters like wildfires and earthquakes, it has big public spaces, a harbor and military bases that could be attacked.

In November, Mayor Kevin Faulconer moved the department to report directly to the city’s chief operating officer. Before, it fell under the fire department. In a memo announcing the change, Faulconer wrote that it shows “my commitment to and the importance of the homeland security mission.”

While his office’s access to the mayor and other departments was never hampered by being under the fire department, Valencia said, the move “definitely facilitates some interaction.”

Valencia, a commanding officer in the Marine Corps Reserve, was also promoted from program manager to executive director. He’s run homeland security for just under two years and last year made $101,400.

Continuity of Operations

The July audit, the first ever done on the Homeland Security Office, called out several spots where the city’s disaster preparedness is lacking.

One has to do with Continuity of Operations Plans, or COOPs, which spell out how each city department will go on performing its functions during and after a disaster. The city has one big COOP, and then each department is responsible for maintaining its own.

But the audit found that many departments’ plans were incomplete. Contact lists were out of date, including staff members who had left the department or changed positions, meaning that some jobs assigned in the emergency plan to specific employees were no longer filled.

City departments also have to pick alternate spots to operate from if their usual locations can’t be accessed during an emergency. The audit found that some departments hadn’t picked a site or picked locations that didn’t have enough access to transportation, food, water, or medical facilities, or were too close to their normal location. It also found that multiple departments name the same location as their backup site, and that there’s no system to decide which department gets priority.

For at least one department, “it was noted that while (the Office of Homeland Security) asked the department to select an alternate work site for continuity of operations purposes, the department did not receive any guidance on how to select the alternate work site,” the audit said.

Valencia said city departments’ continuity plans are updated regularly, and that in 2012 his office helped add a lot of detail to some departments’ plans. But he said the Homeland Security Office did not have enough staff to help every department pick an alternate site, so they used a placeholder. The audit found that in an emergency, 21 out of 22 departments’ plans said their leadership “will confer” on an alternate site or none was listed.

“It's important to know that's by no means ideal, but given constrained resources and availability of staff back in 2012 that's what was feasible,” Valencia said.

The “will confer” placeholder earned the ire of City Councilwoman Lorie Zapf during an October council meeting when the audit was presented.

“You can’t have ‘will confer’ or ‘to be determined.’ That’s just not an acceptable answer to the public for our emergency preparedness plan,” Zapf said.

She said her office asked Valencia’s office: “Where’s our COOP? What is our COOP?” Zapf also wanted to know where her office and the City Council would meet if City Hall wasn’t available.

Homeland security staff are now helping each council district create its own emergency plan, Valencia said, but he is not sure when those will be completed. He said he’s waiting for feedback from the council offices. When he gets it, he said, “few items on our list have greater priority.”

Zapf asked Valencia to report quarterly to the council’s public safety committee on the progress in updating city departments’ emergency plans. His first report, which will be made Wednesday, says his office has created performance measures to evaluate departments’ emergency plans but does not say whether the plans are updated.

Valencia said the city's COOP and department plans are for official use only and can't be made public.

Training city employees

The audit found that while the city requires new employees to get training on what to do in an emergency, no one checks to be sure this happens.

Zapf said at the October council meeting that her staff had never gotten any training.

“At the city we have all these mandatory trainings, like sexual harassment, ethics, all these trainings that we have to do every year, and it looks like all the city employees were supposed to be trained for emergencies within 90 days of hire,” she said. “I’ve been here four years now and neither myself nor any member of my staff has ever been contacted regarding any kind of emergency preparedness training.”

She asked Valencia if mandatory training exists for elected officials.

“I’ll be honest, I regret that you haven’t had those invitations,” said Valenica, who then began to describe a seminar hosted by the Navy, but Zapf cut him off. She asked again about mandatory training for council members, and Valencia said that seminars are held twice a year.

Now, the Homeland Security Office is offering training just for council members and their staff. In October, a list of trainings was sent to all council offices, including a 30-minute overview on what city employees might be asked to do during a disaster. There also was a two-hour presentation on the city’s emergency plan.

All council members have now received some version of these trainings, but they were one hour, not two. Alex Bell, a spokeswoman for Zapf, said the office got the two trainings in one combined session that was “maybe slightly over an hour.”

Twice a year longer seminars on specific types of training are offered, including a Federal Emergency Management Agency four-hour session on “crisis leadership and decision making for elected officials” held last week.

Valencia said his department is also working on more training for all city employees and will publish information on what to do in a disaster on the city’s website and in a quarterly newsletter.

There are also 140 city employees who have other full-time jobs who will be called in to run the city’s Emergency Operations Centers, and they do exercises on a quarterly basis, Valencia said.

Increase homeland security’s authority

The audit also found that the Office of Homeland Security’s authority to make city departments prepare for emergencies isn’t specifically written into city laws. Valencia said an update to the municipal code is currently under legal review.

Councilwoman Emerald said the audit is leading to important reorganization.

“Until now I think we haven't had one consolidated plan, but we do now and now is the time to practice it and train for it and be on the same page so that it can be successful when and if we have to use these plans,” she said. “We have to keep working to make sure we don't become complacent and that everyone understands life is good in San Diego, but things can change on a dime and we need to be prepared. I believe the response to the audit is getting us that much closer to being really better prepared to deal with emergencies.”

Valencia said the audit was helpful to find areas where emergency preparedness could be improved but pointed out its recommendations were all the lowest level priority.

“I believe they're not by any means changes per se. They're really refinements and enhancements,” he said.

Whether they’re “refinements” or “changes,” Valencia said they will all be finished by July.

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