But that is exactly what happened in April when a consultant hired to assess the city's Office of Emergency Services took a close look at how the city would cope if a major disaster occurred. And she found little that measured up to a level that would make residents comfortable that someone at a high level in the city could take charge if something really big happened.
In a wide-ranging report, consultant Arrietta Chakos found the city's emergency-preparedness staff to be fragmented and disorganized and not ready to coordinate responses with other departments at City Hall. She said the current Office of Emergency Services "does not have the authority to overcome planning and preparedness deficiencies."
The report laid out numerous other improvements that need to be made, but the core recommendation was to hire a director for the department, someone who can coordinate the numerous volunteer groups who are the backbone of the city's emergency response operation. Sunnyvale, Santa Cruz and Milpitas are among other cities mentioned in the report that have a full-time emergency services coordinator.
The report's message hit home with City Manager James Keene, who made it one of the key planks in his 2012 budget, and if approved by the City Council as expected later this month, will fulfill one of the council's top five priorities for the 2011. Keene has drawn up a $1 million budget for an improved Office of Emergency Services that will pay for a new director and transfer one, possibly two additional personnel from the fire department, who together can organize the army of volunteers who are eager to serve the department if disaster strikes.
In testimony before the Council Finance Committee, which approved Keene's proposal 3-0, Interim Fire and Police Chief Dennis Burns said he envisioned hiring the new director over the next few months with other staff members for the new office coming on board this fall. According to Burns, the new director and staff will update the city's Emergency Operations Plan, train staff for emergencies, start a new Medical Reserve Corps program to enlist local physicians to volunteer their services during emergencies, plan community exercises and look for grant opportunities to enhance the city's upgraded department.
We are concerned about the ongoing financial impact of the new department, although only about half of the $1 million cost is newly allocated funds while the other $500,000 comes in transfers from the Fire Department budget. But this is a commitment the city needs to make if it is to get its emergency preparedness house in order before a major disaster strikes. One need only consider the multiple disasters occurring in the U.S. and Japan to see the need for the city to move forward on this issue.
Much of the city manager's proposal follows the recommendations in the report. If passed by the council, it will include funds to hire a new director and transfer one full-time coordinator (effectively a transfer from the fire department), and provide for some administrative help.
It is a commitment of resources that the city's extensive community of volunteers should welcome, including graduates of the Palo Alto Certified Emergency Response Team (CERT) course, members of the of the Palo Alto Neighborhoods (PAN) group and the Citizens Corps Council, a coalition that includes neighborhood leaders, city staff, businesses and officials from Stanford University and Stanford Hospital.
Annette Glanckopf, a PAN leader and a CCC volunteer, called the proposed improvements "a step in the right direction." But she also said the city needs to do more, including making Burns the permanent public safety director, rather than the interim title he holds now, and getting the citizens corps council more involved in all emergency-response activities. The CCC, she suggests, should be elevated to an official city commission and be involved in every decision concerning emergency response.
Having persons with first-hand knowledge about delivering services to Palo Alto citizens during an emergency in policy-making roles is a worthy idea and should be considered.
An internal review of the city's response to a February 2010 plane crash that knocked out power to the city for most of the day clearly illustrates the shortcomings of the current Office of Emergency Services. Material obtained by the Weekly through a Public Records Act request (See story on Page 3) shows how city workers struggled with outdated equipment in the Emergency Operations Center activated soon after the plane crashed into an East Palo Alto substation. The report described poor working conditions, communication deficiences and a wide range of other problems at the center.
Even with an updated department with a new director, the city will continue to encounter challenges in building an effective emergency preparedness team, but the proposals that come before the council in a few weeks are long overdue. We strongly endorse their adoption.