Members of the volunteer groups Palo Alto Neighborhoods (PAN), Palo Alto Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) and Citizen Corps Council, which form the backbone of the city's disaster-preparedness efforts, called on the City Council Monday night to support the recommendations of a new study, which called for major structural changes in the city's Office of Emergency Services (OES). The study by Arrietta Chakos of the firm Urban Resilience Policy recommended hiring an Office of Emergency Services director; finding a new, seismically safe emergency headquarters; and streamlining the city's myriad studies of emergency preparation.
Chakos said Palo Alto has a "very experienced, very professional approach to emergency response, without a doubt." But when it comes to planning for disasters, the city's structure is deeply fragmented, she said, with volunteer groups doing much of the work and getting insufficient support from city leaders.
She told the council that restructuring the Office of Emergency Services is "crucial" and said it's important that the new director report directly to the city manager's office. The new position is needed to give the department a "more powerful role within the city" and facilitate better cooperation between departments.
"Under current staffing, folks working in OES are woefully overworked and there's not enough resources devoted to the disaster-readiness work they're doing," Chakos said. "There is a very great need for interdepartmental coordination on planning, training and responding as well."
Emergency preparedness is one of the council's five priorities for 2011, but several community members accused the council Monday of only paying "lip service" to this priority and doing nothing to address it. Even Mayor Sid Espinosa acknowledged the council has done little to address this priority, other than provide some support for grassroots initiatives.
The most critical thing the city can do in the short term is to follow the report's recommendations and hire a new director for the Office of Emergency Services, numerous volunteers told the council.
Lenore Cymes, a Palo Alto CERT volunteer, said the past year has been a difficult one for her group and other community organizations tasked with preparing residents for disasters. The groups currently have no one to direct them or to provide feedback about what they're doing right or wrong, she said.
"The 'Palo Alto Process' will definitely not work in this situation," Cymes said, using a phrase that often connotes bureaucratic delays. "This is one of the very, very few situations where volunteers devote time and energy and hope we're never, ever tested.
"There's no room for a learning curve in this position," she added. "We need one manager who can pull all the groups together."
Sheri Furman, who chairs Palo Alto Neighborhoods, also urged the council to move quickly on hiring a new emergency director.
"We need to start at the top and get something going," Furman said. "I don't want to be talking about the same thing a year from now."
Doug Kalish, a CERT volunteer who sits on the steering committee of the Citizen Corps Council, asked the council, on behalf of 700 CERT volunteers, to move quickly on the report's recommendations. He said the city's recent changes to its emergency-preparedness operation (including four management changes in two years) call into question the council's commitment to disaster preparation.
"Our independent organization will accomplish more if we have a leader to organize, define and communicate our mutual responsibilities," Kalish said.
Chakos' report recommends that the city not only appoint a new director but also provide this director with two professional staff members — one coordinating the city's planning efforts and the other one serving as the city's liaison with the community.
The recommendation, she wrote in the report, "could be implemented by re-casting current positions to the elevated, organization-wide platform needed to ensure the city's commitment to emergency/disaster readiness."
Chakos said many cities rely on county service for emergency preparedness as a cost-cutting measure. Some, however, have their own local coordinators. Mountain View, for example, has a half-time emergency-services coordinator, while Sunnyvale employs one full-time. Milpitas has a full-time emergency manager who shares the responsibility for emergency preparedness with the city's fire administrator.
The leading example is the City and County of San Francisco, she said, which has received federal funds for emergency preparedness and emerged as a regional leader in the field with an adequately staffed Office of Emergency Services.
City Manager James Keene said he agreed with the report's assessment of the city's emergency-preparedness operation and offered to come back to the council in the coming weeks with specific recommendations about staffing the Office of Emergency Services.
"One of the real issues that's been out there, and it's been highlighted in the study, and I'm sure all the neighborhood and community leaders echo it, there's really been very little structure," Keene said. "There's been no real continuity.
"There's been lots of gaps, even in the present moment, a lot of uncertainty, and it's pretty tough to support community efforts with this kind of discontinuity."
Most council members agreed with the report's recommendations, with Vice Mayor Yiaway Yeh calling them "achievable."
Some voiced concerns about the costs of the proposed changes. Councilwoman Karen Holman said she's "looking forward to seeing how the funding is going to go for this." Councilman Greg Scharff shared her concerns and argued that hiring two professional staff members for the department would be a significant long-term cost.
Scharff also said he would be concerned about the new director having too much power over other department heads.
"I'm a little concerned about someone who could say to our planning director or our utility director, 'You need to do this,'" Scharff said. "That's the job of the city manager."
Keene said it would not be effective if he's "called in to referee between departments," which he said often engage in "territorial issues" during times of transition. He said it's "important that we once and for all establish formally the role of the OES and its staffing."