San Diego, California - Smoke could be seen in almost every direction in the county a few weeks ago. It was clear these wildfires would impact thousands of residents and require a regional response - that’s when the County’s Office of Emergency kicks into gear.

San Diego County is accredited by the Emergency Management Accreditation Program, the only local government in the state and one of only a couple of dozen in the nation to have met the program’s arduous and comprehensive standards.

The County’s Office of Emergency Services (OES) coordinates the region’s overall response to disasters. In this role, OES is responsible for alerting and notifying outside agencies such as the California Governor’s Office of Emergency Management when disaster strikes; coordinating agencies’ responses; and ensuring resources are available and mobilized regionally in times of disaster.

The office of 16 employees is well-trained and prepared to respond to emergencies.  They develop and regularly update emergency response and recovery plans and procedures which swing into motion in a disaster.  Staff practice responding to disasters with other agencies by participating in or leading large-scale annual disaster drills.

They also work with you – the residents of our region – to help people prepare for a disaster. OES develops and provides materials to the public to encourage them to prepare at home and work for disasters by creating a family disaster plan, gathering emergency supplies and practicing what to do before, during and after a disaster.

When disaster strikes

One of the Office’s seven emergency services coordinators is on duty around-the-clock, ready to respond to any regional emergency affecting San Diego County.

Emails from the National Weather Service predicting sustained and strong Santa Ana winds or from the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center noting a distant but substantial earthquake with potential to generate a tsunami will result in careful monitoring by OES staff. Staff may work with state emergency managers and technical experts to learn more about the anticipated or actual hazard.

During last month’s wildfire response, local emergency managers were on alert even before the first of several fires broke out. This was because the weather forecast called for Santa Ana winds and extreme heat--prime brushfire conditions.  

Three degrees of emergency activation

When the first wildfire sparked near Rancho Bernardo on May 13, OES director Holly Crawford activated the County’s Emergency Operations Center (EOC) in Kearny Mesa at Level 1, after quickly assessing the fire’s potential to spread and the weather conditions.  As more fires sparked and more communities and cities were affected, the Emergency Operations Center activation escalated to a Level 3, the highest level, by the next day.

What do these levels mean?

A Level 1 activation at the Emergency Operations Center activation usually means the event is  being monitored from the Emergency Operations Center by  a dozen or so County staff which may include mapping specialists, technical specialists and public information officers.

It’s considered a minor or moderate event with local resources available. A city or fire agency has activated its own city Emergency Operations Center or command post and can usually handle the emergency without OES’ involvement, said Stephen Rea, OES assistant director. OES’ role is to gather  information about the event, especially if there is potential for it to escalate or at the request of a city or fire agency, he said. The operations center may also be activated in response to an emergency in the unincorporated part of the county.

County EOC staff checks with first responder agencies to determine if additional resources or assistance is needed during a crisis. EOC staff also works to communicate directly with those first responding and local agencies, to make sure it is passing on verified information to the public.

If an emergency escalates the Emergency Operations Center will ramp up to a Level 2 activation. This may also occur if more than one city or community is affected. At that point, EOC staffing may increase to 20 or so people as more staff from County and regional partners are asked to report in. Staffing may stretch around the clock, 12-hour shifts each day, ensuring overnight coverage.

Additional staff may include fire and law enforcement representatives, emergency medical services workers, an American Red Cross coordinator, County staff to procure supplies, equipment and people, and a County staff member to start planning for the disaster recovery.  In some cases, the county’s Chief Administrative Officer may proclaim a local emergency.

Staff in the Emergency Operations Center   work to keep ahead of the disaster,  making sure adequate  resources are available to first responders and residents, assisting with residents alerts and evacuations, and providing emergency public information on evacuation, shelters and road closures.

Public information is provided to media and the public using the County’s SD Emergency free app and the SDCountyEmergency.com website.

A major disaster results in a Level 3 activation and staffing of about 70 County and partner agency employees at the Emergency Operations Center. It is defined as an event in which available regional resources are impacted and may be overwhelmed, Rea said. The County’s CAO may proclaim a local emergency and request a state proclamation and presidential declaration of emergency. State and possibly federal resources are requested as needed.

The same duties are performed as under a Level 2 activation, but at an expanded level.

During last month’s wildfires, the Emergency Operations Center   activated from May 13 through 18. More than 160 people worked in various roles and shifts to help coordinate the region’s response.

Even now, though the fires are extinguished, County recovery staff continues to work with affected residents, advising and assisting them as they rebuild and put their lives back together.