Calif. county follows study recommendations, reshapes emergency services
Marin County officials make significant changes to Office of Emergency Services
By Richard Halstead
The Marin Independent Journal
MARIN COUNTY, Calif. — Marin County has reconfigured its Office of Emergency Services with the aim of enhancing its preparedness for the next crisis.
A number of changes have already been implemented, starting with a new name: the Office of Emergency Management, or OEM. Steven Torrence, who was hired as the office’s director in February, briefed county supervisors Tuesday about the changes made so far.
Following the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, the county hired Matrix Consulting Group to provide an organizational assessment of the Office of Emergency Services, or OES. That assessment was completed in June 2022.
“There were many reasons the county initiated the study,” said Marin County Administrator Matthew Hymel, who called emergency preparedness one of the county’s top five priorities. “With the greater occurrence of emergencies due to climate change, we want to make sure we are staffed and organized to best serve our community in the future.”
A report by the Marin County Civil Grand Jury last year urged officials to consider reorganizing OES’s management structure. According to the grand jury, a preliminary assessment of Marin’s COVID-19 response by Tetra Tech Inc. reported “some confusion about the chain of command in the OES where some employees were new to public health directives.”
“Given the critical role served by OES,” the grand jury report stated, “it could benefit from reporting more directly to the county administrator and board of supervisors, who bear the ultimate responsibility for Marin’s public safety and public health.”
Matrix Consulting included a similar recommendation among the 24 in its report. Torrence told supervisors Tuesday that 19 of those recommendations have been implemented or are in the works.
Recommending a change in the chain of command, Matrix reported that the OES oversight of emergency services was split between the sheriff and the “director of emergency services.” Each January, the Board of Supervisors appointed one of its members to serve as the director of emergency services.
The manager of emergency services reported to the sheriff for non-emergency activities such as planning and training activities. Once the EOC was activated during an incident, however, the manager of emergency services reported to the director of emergency services.
“Essentially, the Sheriff is providing plans to be enacted in an emergency with no responsibility to enact those plans,” the report stated, “and the director of emergency services is enacting plans in an emergency with no responsibility to write or create those plans.”
Additionally, it was the director of emergency services who was empowered to declare an emergency, not the sheriff.
Under the structure of the new OEM, emergency services will be overseen by Jason Weber, chief of the Marin County Fire Department. Torrence will report to Weber regardless of emergency or non-emergency status.
The power to proclaim an emergency will shift from a designated supervisor to the county administrator.
Other high priority recommendations included in the Matrix report included: training additional staff members to send out warnings over AlertMarin.org; developing a program to provide disaster service workers during an emergency; and establishing a schedule for updating disaster response plans.
The Matrix report noted that the county’s emergency operations plan was written in 2014 and its hazard mitigation plan was completed in 2018.
“These plans are essential to the response and recovery from a disaster or large-scale event and should be updated and revised every 3 to 5 years,” the report stated.
Torrence told supervisors that he is requiring all staff members to be trained to dispatch alerts and expects to bring a new hazard mitigation plan to supervisors for their review shortly.
Torrence is also implementing a Matrix recommendation to create new staff positions to fill key roles. The county’s budget for the 2023-24 fiscal year, which was approved in June, increased ongoing appropriations to the emergency services operation by about $1 million.
“With the investments from the Board of Supervisors, we were able to add 5 new positions and convert 2 positions from grant funded to general funded,” Torrence wrote in an email.
The new positions include a public information officer, a disaster/mitigation grants analyst and an information technology manager.
OEM is also about to begin stocking a new warehouse with such supplies as cots, bedding, light medical equipment and protective gear.
“Previously, these items were staged in trailers throughout the county which were prone to infestation, rust and weathering,” Torrence wrote in an email. “We truly had a hard time maintaining the equipment. The warehouse allows for use to maintain these critical resources and procure additional supplies for the community such as food, water, and shelter supplies.”
Torrence said another key priority for him is ensuring that emergency services are made available to the public in an equitable fashion. For example, OEM will add translation functionality to its website and make an effort to allow people who lack email or a cellphones to get notifications.
Supervisor Katie Rice said, “I especially appreciate the emphasis that you’re making on creating and building relationships and trust with various agency partners, as well as communities and organizations and the public in general.”