A fire crew enters a home that suffered substantial damage when Montecito Creek veered to the west before crossing over East Mountain Drive, cutting a new path near Sycamore Canyon Road. | Credit: Brandon Yadegari

An outside consulting firm hired by the County of Santa Barbara to help make the government body more nimble and effective recommended moving its Office of Emergency Management (OEM) out of the County Executive Office and into the Fire Department. The move, the consultants claim, would help OEM address its deep-rooted planning, staffing, and communication issues, all of which came to a head during the Thomas Fire and deadly 1/9 Debris Flow. “Interviews have indicated that OEM lacks the capacity and capability for ongoing communications and community engagement before and after incidents,” the report states.

The day before 23 people were killed in the debris flow, the OEM issued confusing and contradictory warning messages to Montecito residents. A public survey following the disaster confirmed the OEM’s alerts were poorly worded, untimely, and largely ineffective. The OEM also struggles to staff a 24/7 duty officer, the report states, and frequently falls “months behind” in its planning and drilling for major events.

Former director Rob Lewin, a retired Cal Fire chief, took over the department in 2015 and quietly retired in 2019. Even before Lewin, the OEM struggled with internal problems that manifested external mistakes. Ryan Rockabrand spent only two years on the job, during which time the OEM lost all five of its emergency managers, was the defendant in an expensive — and losing — fair employment lawsuit, and was subject to an unprecedented months-long audit for improper billing.

With Lewin leaving, along with the recent departure of another manager, the department is now bereft of any institutional knowledge or experience. Among its six-person staff, the longest-serving employee came on board in late 2018. Its new director, Kelly Hubbard, was hired from the Municipal Water District of Orange County; its two other managers have backgrounds in animal services and behavioral health.

County Executive Officer Mona Miyasato told the supervisors her office has been mulling the OEM move for some time now. The consulting firm plans to review all county departments over the next two years as part of its Renew ’22 initiative. 


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