Californians pay the price of living near riparian waterways, ski slopes, beaches, vast forests and flowering deserts by facing the frequent natural disasters that accompany these beautiful, scenic features. During the past 18 years, California has suffered 27 major disasters, all of which taxed the state’s ability to respond despite an increasingly sophisticated and well-prepared emergency management structure.
All Californians play a part in emergency management, and the state benefits from the contributions of the private sector. In recognition of this fact, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger in 2006 issued an executive order expanding the model of emergency planning, preparedness, mitigation, response, and recovery to include greater private-sector participation through the formation of the Emergency Partnership Advisory Workgroup (EPAW). The Society of American Military Engineers (SAME) Sacramento Post was invited to join EPAW to represent California’s SAME members.
Rising to state-level influence in emergency management took the Post more than a decade. In the 1990s, following the lead of SAME national headquarters, the Sacramento Post took proactive steps to develop, exercise and distribute an emergency response plan, known as FastStart, that included the primary contacts and response capabilities of Sustaining Member Companies and local government emergency contacts.
Golden Guardian and Beyond
In 2001, Post members bypassed FastStart, responding directly to the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, applying existing federal contract vehicles in the recovery effort. During the following two years, the private and public sectors upgraded their capabilities significantly. Keeping FastStart current and relevant taxed the volunteer organization’s resources.
Following Sept. 11 and the emergence of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS), California’s Office of Emergency Services (OES) initiated annual statewide response exercises called Golden Guardian in which several of Sacramento Post’s members participated. The Golden Guardian experiences enabled the Post to broaden its understanding of the Standardized Emergency Management System and the National Incident Management System processes. The exercises also expanded contacts among the emergency management community, including mutual aid organizations such as the California Utilities Emergency Association.
Becoming familiar with OES led the Sacramento Post’s National Security Committee to the California Safety Assessment Program. Through this program OES trains and certifies licensed professional engineers to assess whether a structure can be reoccupied after a disaster-related evacuation. The Post joined with the American Society of Civil Engineers to conduct safety assessor certification workshops, certifying dozens of Sacramento-area engineers.
The OES vision for safety assessment professionals took into consideration California’s unique size and shape, anticipating that disasters occurring in one end of the state would leave the rest unaffected. For example, safety assessors in Southern California might be expected to respond to floods in Northern California, allowing affected locals to focus on the safety and recovery of their families, businesses and communities.
The Katrina Effect
The Sacramento Post continued to update and exercise FastStart annually, but the plan was not activated during any of the numerous state and federal emergencies that occurred in the decade following its inception. Despite the best of intentions, the inventory of capabilities in FastStart had become little more than an opportunity for Post members to tout their capabilities to a broad spectrum of federal, state and local officials who reviewed the plan.
However, repeated disasters spurred the SAME Sacramento Post’s drive for higher states of readiness. Hurricane Katrina prompted Gov. Schwarzenegger to sign the Emergency Management Assistance Compact, assuring mutual assistance among states. Flood management awareness shook Sacramento, which cowers in the shadows of levees considered inferior to those that failed in New Orleans, La. The Sacramento Post upgraded its FastStart plan, focusing on flood response and evacuation scenarios. DHS Incident Command training modules became available on the Internet and several members of the Post completed the series.
In 2006, in response to wildfires in Southern California, the Post activated FastStart with a broadcast e-mail appeal for all members and neighboring Posts to provide immediate information on current capabilities. Telephone contact followed the e-mail to reach every member. Sister Posts responded to the e-mail, making Sacramento a coordinating hub despite its location 400-mi north of the fires. Because Sacramento is the state’s capital, the Post was able to deliver a spreadsheet of member capabilities spreadsheet to the OES headquarters in person. OES entered the information into a database accessed directly by affected municipalities, which contacted Post members as needed.
Several factors hindered the plan’s usefulness in response to the fires. Unlike 9/11, few contract vehicles were in place applicable to state-reimbursed disaster relief. The Post learned new lessons about maintaining a current contact list. Lack of agreement and available resource inventories impeded the private sector’s ability to coordinate with the state. Lastly, the Post’s Homeland Security Committee consisted primarily of civil servants and military personnel who had higher obligations than SAME in an emergency and therefore were generally unavailable.
These lessons were not lost on California state officials, and in 2007 OES focused on further developing public-private partnership agreements, primarily through EPAW, which the governor had initiated the year before.
The goals of EPAW include enabling rapid access to private services and resources and helping the state minimize the financial and logistical burdens of stockpiling supplies. Gov. Schwarzenegger signed into law several emergency management-related bills, many of which target greater integration of private- sector capabilities. Response to the Lake Tahoe-area Angora Fire and Southern California firestorms in summer 2007 was rapid. Several Sacramento Post members volunteered in the response efforts, while the two regions quickly organized for recovery contracting.
Firestorms that devastated the state in 2008 reinforced the need for collaboration between California’s private and public sectors. In October 2008, the governor memorialized memorandums of understanding (MOU) with four private-sector organizations including Business Executives for National Security, the California Grocer’s Association, the CUEA and Wal-Mart. The EPAW committee focusing on construction, engineering and hazardous materials, where SAME is making its contribution, is currently establishing an MOU template for use by industry associations to share information with the state about member capabilities for such services as debris removal, recovery, repairs and reconstruction. Other workgroup efforts include reimbursement scales appropriate to the cost of business in California’s economy, as well as mobilization, logistics and waste disposal issues.
Effective Jan. 1, 2009, OES was merged with the state's Office of Homeland Security to form the California Emergency Management Agency (or Cal EMA). Cal EMA is committed to building public-private emergency management partnerships and to expanding individual and community-based preparedness. SAME’s military, government and private-sector membership have the necessary expertise to make significant contributions in support of these missions.
Contemplating an MOU warrants reevaluating SAME’s security program. Lessons learned include that the capabilities stated on the inventory in FastStart do not reflect actual capacity or willingness to respond during a specific emergency. How will SAME effectively meet the provisions of an MOU with the state to supply an inventory of available resources? Given the difficulty of maintaining current information, will SAME inflate the state’s estimation of available private-sector resources?
Civil servants and military personnel who generally would be unavailable should be excluded from the rolls. Particularly in this economy, SAME members and business leaders will need to firmly and honestly evaluate their personal commitment and ability to aid their community, state and country in times of need. Realistic planning and willingness to follow through as the opportunity arises is the key to SAME’s relevance in emergency management. Local community preparedness training and organizing for expected disasters is perhaps where our military and civil servant members could make their largest contribution.
Experience is wasted only if we do not learn from it. The strength of unity as a nation and as a national society is our ability to learn from and with each other. Of all the abundant resources that California has to share, its wealth of disaster experience may be the most valuable.