State Auditor: California Emergency Planning Falls Short

Nine Bay Area county emergency response plans vary by county, depth and availability

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An NBC Bay Area Investigation has found that some public health plans for emergencies are dated, lacking or unavailable online to the public.

And California’s State Auditor says that is a problem during a pandemic such as the coronavirus crisis currently sweeping the Bay, the state, the nation and the world.

In its report titled “California Is Not Adequately Prepared To Protect Its Most Vulnerable Residents From Future Natural Disasters” and dated, December, 2019, the auditor said that it is “critical that the State do more to ensure local jurisdictions are as prepared as possible.”

Those most vulnerable residents noted in the reported specifically include seniors and those with disabilities, from future natural disasters, the very same populations now at greatest risk from COVID-19.

“The Legislature should require Cal OES (Office of Emergency Services) to review all counties’ emergency plans to determine if they are consistent with best practices and provide necessary technical assistance to counties.”

Want to view the complete report? You can view it here or by visiting the California State Auditor's website.

Representatives for Cal OES did not respond to NBC Bay Area’s request for comment on the report.

The audit focused specifically on the emergency plans and responses to the 2017 wildfires in Sonoma and Ventura Counties and the 2018 wildfire in Butte County. But the findings carry important lessons for every emergency situation going forward including the response and preparedness protocols for the current coronavirus crisis.

The state auditor found “none of the three counties adequately engaged with representatives of individuals with a variety of access and functional needs…”

It also found that those counties “did not follow key practices for emergency planning” and “each county lacked completed and updated plans for issuing evacuation warnings and each had deficiencies in the way it issued warnings to the public...”

One hundred and fifty-eight pages long, the auditor’s report also noted that ”Unlike in California, state laws in Florida and Texas require their state emergency management division to establish standards for and periodically review local jurisdictions’ emergency management plans.”

NBC Bay Area’s Investigative Unit found that lack of oversight contributes to a wide disparity in the date, detail, maintenance and public availability of emergency management plans.

One county's plans had not been updated in nearly a decade while another made reference to a public health section yet to be written. Two counties told NBC Bay Area they couldn't share the plan because it included personal information, like the home phone numbers and addresses of key personnel, despite at least three other counties publishing public versions and summaries online. One county's plan simply referenced the broader state plan for public health emergencies, which hasn't been updated since 2013.

Another county did not respond for two days to our inquiries about the emergency plan for its citizens

No plan could be found on the county’s emergency operations‘ or the county’s main website.

When a spokesperson finally did reply to our inquiries, she sent us an emergency medical plan that had just been approved on March 10, 2020, a date AFTER the COVID-19 outbreak hit the Bay Area.

The spokesperson also admitted the plan was not widely available to the public on the county’s emergency website because new staff personnel had run into computer problems posting it. That county is still working on getting the plan posted for the public to view. As of Wednesday, March 18,2020, the county’s published emergency operations phone numbers still ring to an answering machine or to a message that says the phone number is not valid.

Yet in an example of the wide disparity, a neighboring county has a very robust emergency management plan. It specifically refers to plans for dealing with an infectious disease or biological outbreak, even going as far as to recommend quarantine, isolation and “social distancing” a reference to a term now in wide use but little heard of when this county first used it in its emergency plan nearly a decade ago.

Another example of the disparity can be found in Alameda County where Sgt. Ray Kelly leans over a desk to proofread an emergency notification before it gets sent out to Alameda County residents: starting at midnight, shelter in place. Alameda has a fairly detailed and rigorous Emergency Operations Plan publicly available.

The message sent to Alameda County residents on this day is one many in the six Bay Area counties received shortly after the joint announcement was made by all six different public health officers on Monday, Marchn16, 2020.

After clicking a button more than a million Alameda residents received the message, sent from a single computer at the county's Emergency Operations Center in Dublin. From this location, local and regional responses can be taken to address a number of disasters and emergencies, and while they've trained for biological incidents, the COVID-19 virus is something new.

“So there (are) a lot of decisions being made right now,” said Kelly, a spokesperson for the Alameda County Sheriff's Office, tasked with running and maintaining the facility. ”A lot of them are decisions that have never really been made before, and we are adjusting to all of this as we go.”

The county's public health department has an emergency plan in place for containing biological hazards like influenza or the novel coronavirus, Kelly says, but with the broader, county response they are having to pull from various emergency plans – dozens of which sit in a nearby bookshelf against the wall.

As to the state auditors recommendations, Kelly said “I would I would agree if Texas is model and it mandates that different emergency services offices have these things, that would be great. But a lot of that is up to the legislature to pass those laws. We would obviously be on board with something like that.”

Each county lacked completed and updated plans for issuing evacuation warnings and each had deficiencies in the way it issued warnings to the public...

California State Auditor's Report: California Is Not Adequately Prepared to Protect Its Most Vulnerable Residents From Natural Disasters (December 2019)

“I think that we all can do better. I know that we could use more staff here in our operations center,” said Kelly. “We could use probably another half a dozen people or more in our operations center. What how we work is that we supplement this place at times like this where we will bring in staff. But in the day to day operations of this place, when nothing's going on, we definitely could use another six, seven, eight people working in here.”

Dr. Arthur Reingold, an epidemiologist and the dean of UC Berkeley's School of Public health says that the importance of updating and reviewing emergency plans is just another aspect of a robust public health system, one which he says is severely lacking in the United Sates. Still, he thinks that California is better off than most other states. Dr. Reingold said the cooperation among the six counties is a good example of how these systems should work and the now Bay Area region-wide shelter-in-place or shelter-at-home orders are steps in the right direction.

Earlier this week the Investigative Unit sat down with Dr. Arthur Reingold, an epidemiologist and dean of UC Berkeley's School of Public Health, to discuss the novel coronavirus, emergency response plans and what the current situation suggests about public health as a whole. See the best clips from the talk in the video above.

“We will see the numbers (of COVID-19 cases) grow substantially over the coming weeks. That, to me, is almost inevitable at this point,” Dr. Reingold said, adding that the concern over the spread of infectious diseases won't go away anytime in the foreseeable future.

But it's the present situation that has officials like Sgt. Kelly looking up at a large map of the United States covered in red dots representing confirmed cases of COVID-19. Kelly says he's confident the country and the Bay Area communities will get through the crisis, but that tough days, and adjustment period, are ahead. Afterward, Kelly says there will be some learning to do.

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