Audit finds Los Angeles isn’t fully prepared to deploy city workers during emergencies

By Gary Walker

Tenants recover belongings from a Santa Monica apartment complex after the Northridge earthquake
Photo courtesy of Santa Monica History Museum

The recent 25th anniversary of the 1994 Northridge earthquake as well as the scarred hillsides in Malibu from last year’s Woolsey Fire serve as reminders that Southern California can be struck by natural disasters at any time, often taxing overwhelmed and understaffed first responders.

In times of crises, California has a deep bench of reserves who can step in and assist police and firefighters in civilian capacities: city workers.

But according to an audit by Los Angeles City Controller Ron Galperin, municipal employees in the city’s Disaster Service Worker program lack the proper training to help out during an emergency and are not prepared to be activated during an earthquake, fire or flood.

“Los Angeles has weathered more than its fair share of destructive fires, floods and mudslides in recent years, and the threat of the ‘Big One’ is always on the horizon,” Galperin wrote in his audit last month. “We have incredibly dedicated and talented city workers and we need to be ready to deploy them to aid our first responders when a major disaster strikes.”

State law authorizes cities to activate municipal employees in the event of an emergency to perform civilian duties that might include answering phones, delivering supplies, preparing food and filling sandbags.

A 2011 mayoral directive established the Disaster Service Worker program in Los Angeles, but not many other California cities have similar programs in place to organize and train the workforce on what to do in the event of an emergency, said Ian Thompson, a spokesman for Galperin.

The audit found that Los Angeles has not yet established a centralized database of city employee cell phone numbers, emails and addresses that would be needed to deploy them during an emergency.

“There is no more vital role of local government than keeping people safe and being prepared for inevitable emergencies.  We all know that it’s not a question of ‘if’ but ‘when’ we’ll have one of these emergencies, and when it happens we better be ready,” Galperin told The Argonaut.

Galperin’s recommended remedies include developing procedures to identify which employees to deploy first, requiring the city’s departments of Emergency Management and Personnel to create plans to identify which departments (and which employees within those department) should be prioritized for deployment, implementing regular disaster service work training, and holding testing activities during annual activation drills.

“These seem like practical, achievable goals that can move this organization in the right direction,” said Neighborhood Council of Westchester-Playa President Cyndi Hench, who in the past helped organize Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) classes at Fire Station 5 in Westchester. “What I’m sad about is that it took this long for someone to recognize this.”

Emergency Management General Manager Aram Sahakian echoed Galperin’s assessment that a disaster will happen sooner rather than later.

“The 25th anniversary of the Northridge earthquake is a reminder that Los Angeles continues to face the risk of natural and man-made disasters,” Sahakian said.

Santa Monica does not have an official Disaster Service Worker program, but the city does have an updated database of employees who can be called upon in an emergency, said spokeswoman Miranda Iglesias.

“We’ve been working to expand our teams to incorporate more types of departmental staff and to cross-train staff so they are competent in many functions. The city has staff members trained in shelter and mass care operations, family assistance center operations, emergency communications, damage assessment, and coordinating citywide, department and incident response activities,” she said.

Los Angeles County can deploy trained public workers to unincorporated areas such as Marina del Rey for specialized tasks on an as-needed basis, said Nicole Mooradian of the L.A. County Department of Beaches and Harbors.

Culver City is working on improving its database of city employees with a new system called Everbridge, which will allow city leaders to push out notifications citywide during an emergency to business, schools and residents. It will also consistently update the employee database.

“We’ve created an employee emergency call-in phone number so when an employee  calls they will be directed to their respective departments, depending on the type of emergency. It’s very scenario-driven,” explained Culver City Emergency Management Coordinator Christine Parra.

Galperin said updating Los Angeles’ employee record system is crucial.

“There’s no way that [the disaster worker program] can be effective if you do not have a good database of employees. This is a call for the city to be prepared as much as possible,” he said.

Galperin also recommends that residents be proactive about planning for emergency response. Los Angeles has developed the voluntary program Ready Your LA Neighborhood (emergency.lacity.org/Rylan), which helps residents organize their immediate neighborhoods to accomplish vital tasks during a major disaster.

gary@argonautnews.com

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