Palo Alto should hire a director to oversee its emergency services, relocate its emergency-services headquarters and forge stronger relationships between city staff and the greater community, a consultant is recommending in a study released this week.
The city commissioned the report in October to get an independent review of the city's disaster-preparedness effort -- one of the City Council's top five priorities for 2011. The report, which the council is scheduled to discuss Monday, lauds Palo Alto for paying close attention to community safety but identifies a series of shortcomings in the city's emergency-preparedness efforts.
These include a lack of coordination between departments, insufficient disaster training for staff in "non-operational" departments (all departments other than Police, Fire, Utilities and Public Works), a seismically shaky Emergency Operations Center, and inadequate public outreach from City Hall.
The report by consultant Arrietta Chakos of the firm Urban Resilience Policy offers three main recommendations: a new director with cross-departmental authority to oversee the Office of Emergency Services; a plan to find a structurally safer location for the Emergency Operations Center; and consolidation of information from various studies and commissions into an "internal clearinghouse."
Chakos estimated the recommendations could be accomplished within two years.
The largely fragmented and disorganized structure of Palo Alto's emergency-preparedness staff is a reoccurring theme throughout the report. The city's public-safety departments have professionals trained in emergency response, but their coordination with other departments in City Hall is largely nonexistent. The current Office of Emergency Services, the study found, "does not have the authority to overcome planning and preparedness deficiencies."
"Departments do not fully consider beforehand their responsibility in crisis situations that cut across boundaries, sectors and jurisdictions," the report states. "No single group has demonstrated crisis management or leadership on a comprehensive level, resulting in a fragmented and ineffective approach to response and readiness."
A new director of emergency services would seek to remedy that problem. The position would be responsible for the city's "overall emergency/disaster readiness" and have "organization-wide authority." The report also recommends two professional staff positions for the office -- one to coordinate the city's planning efforts and another one to serve as a liaison with the community.
The city could staff this office by recasting some of its existing positions, the report states.
Among the director's tasks would be making sure City Hall staff is trained in disaster response. The report notes that staff in non-operational departments "would benefit from more in-depth briefing on their disaster roles and duties."
The report's recommendation of a director follows similar advice from community volunteers. Annette Glankopf, co-chair of Palo Alto Neighborhoods and a leading proponent of emergency preparedness, urged the council during its annual retreat in January to formalize the city's emergency-preparedness efforts with a new director and possibly even a new commission. She described the city's existing efforts as an "orchestra" in need of conductor.
City Manager James Keene said at the retreat that the city currently has an "ad hoc structure and staffing" in emergency services and that a director would make it easier to consider improvements to this structure.
The new report also confirms some the findings of a recent fire-service study by TriData and International City/County Management Association (ICMA). The two groups analyzed the city's Fire Department and uncovered what they called a "leadership malaise" in emergency planning. The Urban Resilience Policy study states that "authority and responsibility for disaster readiness is indeterminate" and that "staff is caught in a confusing leadership gap."
Staff in the Office of Emergency Services would be charged with closing the gap and also with strengthening the city's partnerships with Stanford University, neighborhood groups and other organizations involved in emergency preparedness.
"Staff is perceived, for the most part, to shy away from community involvement," the report states. "There are exceptions to this, but in general, it is time to change the organizational culture and enliven the interactions between the community and City staff."
Police and Fire Chief Dennis Burns told the Weekly that it has not yet been determined whether staffing for the new Office of Emergency Services should come from within the city's existing organization or from the outside. The key attribute of staff members would be a "capability and know-how to coordinate cross-departmentally," Burns said.
He also said he generally agrees with the report's recommendations.
"I think it's important to try to leverage the resources of the entire city and of all the city departments to the extent we can," Burns said. "We've gone through transitions with regard to the Office of Emergency Services over the years and the recommendations are sound -- they would give us a better emergency-response profile."
The study also calls on local community groups such as Palo Alto Neighborhoods and Palo Alto Community Emergency Response Training (CERT) to "align" their efforts, promote more diversity in their membership and bring more young people, including students and young families, into their organization. It also calls on the city to provide "ongoing support for growing and maintaining engaged community networks and activities."
"Palo Alto's community is a strong partner in disaster preparedness -- people are engaged and clamoring to work with City leaders," the report states. "This opportunity can be used to good purpose; it is too rare a situation to squander by eroding the goodwill and trust of community leaders with indecision and inaction."