Emergency Headquarters Funding Debated
Budget Needs Weighed Against Better Response Coordination
Amid firestorms both real and financial, Santa Barbara County is moving ahead with plans for an Emergency Operations Center (EOC).
With five major fires burning nearly 349,000 acres and 370 homes and forcing thousands of county residents to evacuate in the last 25 months, little convincing is needed that natural disasters are alive and well in Santa Barbara County. And the need for an EOC-a headquarters for information, policy making, and resource allocation during emergencies-is not lost on anyone, from elected officials, to residents, to the Santa Barbara County Grand Jury, which has called for a dedicated EOC building on four separate occasions since 1996.
That’s why the Board of Supervisors decided Tuesday to approve plans for a new 9,922-square-foot building that would serve as a dedicated EOC. The building will more than likely be on a plot of land right next to Fire Department headquarters on Cathedral Oaks. Currently, the EOC is housed in a series of trailer modules on Calle Real.
As much as those trailers have proven to be inadequate space for what an EOC really requires-when the winds blew the Jesusita Fire rapidly west in May, the EOC had to be evacuated and the operation moved to UCSB in the middle of the night-its previous setups weren’t much better. During one flood in January 1995, when the EOC was based in the basement of the County Jail, employees found that pagers, cell phones, and radios didn’t work in the basement, and setting up equipment took too long. During another flood months later, the Office of Emergency Services (OES) didn’t even bother opening the EOC, but just operated out of its current offices. Later, the EOC was housed in a room at Fire Department headquarters.
Though much of the recent EOC activity has come as a result of the recent onslaught of wildfires, which began with the Zaca Fire in July 2007, the county still could experience more natural disasters-be it a tsunami, earthquake mudslide, or yet another blaze-or other scenarios such as a terrorist attack, major plane crash, or pandemic in the coming years. In the words of the Grand Jury, it’s not a matter of if, but when.
Paul Orfalea, founder of Kinko’s and head of the Orfalea Foundation, realized this and promised the board upward of 25 percent of the EOC cost. “We are in a precarious situation,” he said of the region. That total cost is $7.2 million, the large majority of which has been stowed away in an account using General Fund contributions over the years.
But that price was enough to give both 3rd District Supervisor Doreen Farr and 1st District Supervisor Salud Carbajal pause. Slated for later that day was a discussion on how to close a current fiscal year $13-million General Fund gap caused by the state’s budget. Farr and Carbajal hesitated to jump on the EOC bandwagon. “I can’t in good conscience vote for this,” Carbajal said. Farr noted that, with five major fires in 25 months, the EOC has been in operation only 68 days of that. “I have to balance that out with the very real needs of the rest of the county,” she said.
While the two agreed to allow OES Director Michael Harris to go forward and seek construction bids from various companies, they wanted another look at the project before finally handing over the cash for the EOC, which would also house OES’s offices when not in emergency mode, and would be resilient to earthquakes, flooding, and fire.
Other supervisors, including 2nd District Supervisor Janet Wolf, who lost her home in the Painted Cave Fire and was evacuated in the Jesusita Fire, said there was a perfect storm to make this project a reality now, with the hope that it will lead to efficient management and coordination in times of emergency. “This is the time, in my mind, where all the forces are coming together,” Wolf said.