For Palo Alto's grass-roots army of disaster-preparedness volunteers, the long wait for a general is almost over.
Despite budget deficits and staffing reductions, the city is planning to create a $1 million Office of Emergency Services this year, an addition that volunteers have been clamoring for for years. The office will be charged with coordinating and assisting the volunteer groups and consolidating the city's fragmented and somewhat convoluted emergency-response operation.
The new office, which will include a director, at least one coordinator (possibly two) and administrative staff, is the most significant new project included in City Manager James Keene's proposed 2012 budget. Once approved, it would also be the most dramatic action the council has taken on the topic of emergency preparedness since former Mayor Judy Kleinberg advocated for it as one of the council's top priorities five years ago. The council also made "emergency preparedness" a priority in 2010 and this year.
Under the present system, the city responds to citywide incidents by activating its Emergency Operations Center (EOC) -- a basement room in City Hall where top city officials and public-safety personnel coordinate information and develop response plans. That's what happened on Feb. 17, 2010, when a small plane crashed into a substation in East Palo Alto, killing all three passengers and knocking out power to Palo Alto for most of the day.
According to an internal city review that the Weekly obtained through a Public Records Act request, the city's response to the power outage was hampered by the center's "outdated" layout and equipment, an overloaded phone system, and shortcomings within the planning section of the emergency operation. It also didn't help that the Emergency Operations Center was "crowded, noisy, stuffy, and generally an inefficient place to work."
Though the new office will not address the city's urgent need for a better operation center, it could help organize the staffing and planning shortcomings in the citywide operation. The report noted that after the power outage, staff "had difficulty transitioning from their working roles to the assigned ICS (Incident Command System) positions"; that "staff, in some cases, were not trained or, in most cases, were not comfortable with their EOC positions"; and that the city's existing Emergency Operations Plan is "unwieldy." The huge number of City Hall retirements in the past two years also impacted the Emergency Operations Center roster and supporting staff resources, the report stated.
The report also points out that when the "proverbial Big One eventually strikes, a key challenge for City Management will be communications with off-duty staff."
The new director will be expected to bring some order to this chaos. An independent report issued in April by the firm Urban Resilience Policy identified a series of deficiencies with the city's emergency-planning effort and recommended hiring a new director to address these deficiencies. The report cited staff's findings from the city's response to the February 2010 outage as evidence for the needed changes. It concluded that the existing Office of Emergency Services, which is housed in the Fire Department, "does not have the authority to overcome planning and preparedness deficiencies."
"No single group has demonstrated crisis management or leadership on a comprehensive level, resulting in a fragmented and ineffective approach to response and readiness," consultant Arrietta Chakos wrote in the report.
City officials see the new office as an attempt to address these deficiencies. They also see it as a good way to support the city's bustling community of emergency volunteers, which includes graduates of the Palo Alto Certified Emergency Response Team (CERT) course, members of the Palo Alto Neighborhoods (PAN) group, and the Citizen Corps Council, a broad coalition that includes neighborhood leaders, city staff, businesses and employees from Stanford University and Stanford Hospital.
The volunteer groups, while enthusiastic, have expressed frustration over the city's lack of support for their activities. They have long called for the city to appoint what PAN leader and Citizen Corps Council volunteer Annette Glanckopf characterized at the City Council's January retreat as a "conductor" for their orchestra of emergency responders.
Their call could be answered on June 20, when the council will vote on a budget that includes close to $1 million for the new Office of Emergency Services. The budget includes the hiring of a new emergency-preparedness director and more than $700,000 for new programs, supplies, planning projects and operating costs. The city also plans to reallocate two existing city positions, including an emergency-services coordinator and a part-time administrative assistant, from the Fire Department to the new office.
The staffing proposal falls short of the recommendation in Chakos' report, which recommends a new office with four positions -- a director, two full-time coordinators and a full-time administrative assistant. Interim Public Safety Director Dennis Burns recommended starting the office with three positions (and just one new position) and allowing the new office director to decide whether to hire additional staff.
Keene's recommendation for the new office also includes a budget of $100,000 for community programs, $165,000 to pay for operating costs (supplies, storage, etc.) and one-time expenditures totaling about $335,000 for equipment and planning efforts. The budget proposal calls for about $500,000 in new allocations and about $500,000 in transfers from the Fire Department budget to the new office.
Glanckopf called the proposed overhaul a "step in the right direction," but she also called for the city to take additional steps to improve its emergency operations. These include making Burns the permanent public safety director and getting the Citizen Corps Council more involved in all things relating to emergency response. The citizens' group should be elevated to the level of an official city commission, she said, and should be involved in every major decision relating to emergency response.
"I'm optimistic," Glanckopf said. "We are moving ahead -- very, very slowly -- but the good thing is we are moving ahead."
The council's Finance Committee has already approved Keene's proposal to create the new office, and the council is expected to do the same when it approves the Fiscal Year 2012 budget later this month.
Keene said creating the office is important to keep the volunteers' momentum alive.
"We do have this tremendous network of community volunteers in emergency preparedness who I think in many ways are in danger of losing steam, losing energy and that network breaking down," Keene told the committee.
Burns said at that meeting that the new office's functions will also include updating the city's Emergency Operations Plan, training staff for emergencies, starting a new Medical Reserve Corps program (which would enlist local physicians as volunteers during emergencies), planning community exercises and seeking grant opportunities to further enhance the city's operations. He said recruitment of the new director would take place in the coming months and be completed this summer. Other staff members in the new office would be hired in the fall.
Councilman Greg Schmid said at the meeting that Keene's proposal "makes a lot of sense" and that the new office would bring "tremendous leverage" to existing community resources. He joined fellow committee members Greg Scharff and Nancy Shepherd to tentatively approve the proposed budget for the new office.
"There's been a lot of ferment in the community about this -- a lot of people urging it," Schmid said. "It would be a great program to have."