Ryan Rockabrand, head of the Office of Emergency Management (OEM), is leaving the county and heading for Denver, Colorado’s Division 8 of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) in February. After two years on the job, he leaves behind an office of qualified specialists who replaced his departed managers, he said, with more than 100 years of experience among them. The departure of four of the department’s prior five managers within a year caused some consternation in Santa Barbara, with many worried about the county’s readiness for high fire season and El Niño. One of the former managers, Joe Guzzardi, filed a fair employment complaint last April. The case settled on January 13, according to County Counsel Mike Ghizzoni. The details of the settlement are currently unknown.
Rockabrand’s new position as Federal Disaster Recovery Coordinator will have him overseeing millions of lives and potentially millions of dollars in aid for Utah, Colorado, Wyoming, Montana, and the Dakotas. “It’s a great opportunity for me and my family,” he said. “I’m very humble and proud to help serve the country.” Renée Bahl, assistant CEO for Santa Barbara County, said she would have preferred that he had stayed but that they were proud of him achieving a high-level career position.
Rockabrand stated his Santa Barbara experience has been a great one. Among his accomplishments was to update Chapter 12 of the county code, which was still called “Civil Defense” when he arrived, a term used during WWII. It’s now updated to reflect current emergency management protocols needed to be consistent with national standards — this particularly affects declared disasters when FEMA aid money only arrives when the documentation is there to track the payments, he explained.
The Everbridge alert system, called Aware and Prepare here, is another of Rockabrand’s successes, Bahl said. It’s “Nixle on steroids,” she said, giving people the ability to be alerted in many ways and to give first responders advance notice of individuals’ infirmities or special needs. Bahl also complimented Rockabrand’s department’s performance during the Refugio Oil Spill, saying that they were actively involved in opening the Emergency Operations Center to responding agencies in the early weeks of the spill and coordinating with other county departments.
He’s leaving a great core team in place here, Rockabrand said. “I can leave knowing they will do a great job.” Among his new emergency managers is Robert Lewin, the retired former head of CalFire in San Luis Obispo, who is working out of the expanded Santa Maria OEM office located at Fire Station 1. Justin Freiler, who has a master’s degree in emergency management, took a position upgraded from “administrative professional,” i.e., secretary, to a full-time specialist; his assignment has been to fix problems in past grant management. Incorrect billing on grant reimbursements by the department has been the subject of a months-long audit by the county Auditor-Controller’s office. Auditors were scheduled to meet with county counsel this week to finalize the audit, and the matter is expected to go before the Board of Supervisors at an upcoming meeting.
Another new emergency manager, Dan Flynn from St. Louis, Missouri, arrives with more than 30 years of experience dealing with disasters from the avian flu to Katrina. He will be extending the OEM’s outreach in training among residents and coordinating with local jurisdictions. And to get OEM from its civil defense doctrines to today’s post-9/11 needs, which are larger in range and more robust, said Rockabrand, and now extend from preparedness to recovery, he brought in Meischa Jackson. She worked with FEMA in Florida and came to Santa Barbara from the State of Hawaii’s Emergency Management Agency with experience in planning and risk assessment.
The county will begin recruiting for a new OEM director soon, said Bahl. Rockabrand leaves the county on February 23.