Credit: MGN

With Santa Barbara County COVID cases up 35 percent from what they were two weeks ago — but hospitalizations down 15 percent — it might seem premature to host an hour-long after-the-fact dissection of how the county Emergency Operation Management Office of Emergency Management fared during the pandemic. Based on a state-mandated “After-Action Report” prepared by a private consultant and presented to the county supervisors on June 28, the short answer is this: The dedication and professionalism of county staff — 2,200 employees who chipped in one way or the other — cannot be overstated. The public outreach effort — with no fewer than 98 press briefings — came in for serious praise, too. Likewise for the county’s early focus on economic recovery and chasing after state and federal emergency funding.

The consultants found the county’s basic command structure kept shifting and reorganizing throughout the duration of the crisis, leading to confusion, duplication of effort, and inefficiencies. The biggest problem identified, however, was employee burnout, which took a serious mental-health toll on those affected and undermined the response effectiveness. 

The consultant noted that Santa Barbara has gone through several protracted emergency response fire drills in recent years — the 2015 Refugio Oil Spill and the 43-day long Thomas Fire and 1/9 Debris Flow disaster. As devastating as they were, they paled in comparison to COVID. For the Office of Emergency Services, the pandemic was an all-consuming event for 443 days, during which more than 500,000 hours of staff time was expended. During the Thomas Fire/Debris Flow, it was only 18,904 hours. 

The county supervisors allotted an hour to hash out the details of the report, but the consultants raced through their presentation to allow time for questions. Strikingly, there were exceedingly few, and not one member of the public showed up to comment.

This report was focused more on the challenges and lessons learned by the Department of Emergency Services Office of Emergency Management. The Department of Public Health will release the results of its “After Event” analysis sometime this fall.

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