Commentary: Disemboweling Berkeley’s Disaster Response By JESSE TOWNLEY

Tuesday May 03, 2005

In all of the arguing of which cuts to make and which projects to fund, it’s easy to lose sight of the long-range effects of cuts in service and in the commissions which oversee them.  

One perfect example is the Office of Emergency Services, currently part of the Berkeley Fire Department (BFD), and the Disaster Council. From chemical spills to radiological accidents to man-made attacks to hills fires to the impending earthquake on the Hayward Fault, the OES works hard to save as many of our lives as possible through preparation and planning.  

One year ago, the OES performed the following vital, life-saving tasks. It coordinated the free Community Emergency Response Training (CERT) classes, trained neighborhoods to fend for themselves after a disaster, and offered refresher courses for already-trained neighborhoods. It also provided long-term community coordination, like placing emergency supply caches in neighborhoods and helping residents fill those caches. OES applied for and received grants for Disaster Resistant Berkeley (which funded many of these items for years until the grant ended), and organized the city-wide Care and Shelter Plan. It ran disaster exercises involving many parts of city government, and helped create the Disaster Mitigation Plan, which is the framework for Berkeley’s disaster preparation. 

OES worked on individual projects to make our city safer, like convincing the school district to install emergency supplies at every school. It helped shape the successful Unreinforced Masonry (URM) program to retrofit many unsafe brick buildings, and joined with the Planning Department to push for a new Soft Story law to retrofit the many apartment buildings at risk of total collapse. The OES investigated various initiatives from the Disaster Council, like disaster-prep curriculum ideas for our schools, Citizen Corp federal funding, and preparing small businesses for recovery from a major disaster.  

By June of 2003, budget cuts had trimmed OES from four down to three full-time equivalencies (FTE), i.e. three full-time staffers: two analysts and their manager. One year later, there were 1.2 full-time equivalencies split between an analyst and the manager.  

While the three staffers were able to do most of the tasks above with the help of volunteers from the Disaster Council and off-duty firefighters, last year’s evisceration of OES rearranged its tasks as follows. 

OES coordinates the CERT classes, although the training is now split between community volunteers and firefighters. OES also coordinates the city-wide disaster exercises, does minor neighborhood outreach and retraining, and coordinates one-off projects. 

The Soft Story retrofit program, like the URM program before it, has been turned over to the Planning Department, while the neighborhood cache trainings and refresher trainings are available from the BFD by request only. The city-wide Care and Shelter Plan is taken on by Health and Human Services, although the exciting progress made over the past few years has slowed due to HHS’s own budget crunch. Applying for new disaster and homeland security grants, like the current Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) grant to improve fire evacuation routes in the Berkeley hills, has moved to the overburdened city manager’s office. Dedicated grant-hunting to fund the many disaster needs of the city from outside of the General Fund has essentially stopped. 

There are a number of vital tasks that have stopped completely because of the cut from three FTE to 1.2 FTE. Ended are all meaningful neighborhood trainings, as well as all outreach to new neighborhoods to become disaster-resistant. There is no effort to install new emergency supplies caches. This systemic evisceration means there’s no long-term community coordination that will allow us to learn to take care of vulnerable neighbors, minor structure fires, injuries, and shelter needs during short-term disasters (chemical spills, power outages) or during long-term disasters (earthquakes, radiological releases).  

Compounding last year’s reckless cost-cutting is this year’s budget proposal. The plan is to eliminate the OES manager position (currently it’s the .2 of the 1.2 FTE since the position also performs BFD fire prevention duties), and to have the sole remaining OES analyst split her job duties between OES and fire prevention. No word on what the exact fraction of FTE this staffer will devote to OES but one thing is for sure. The time allotted for the incredibly important tasks of the OES will be criminally insufficient.  

All of the facts in this article come directly from my notes of the last two years of Disaster Council meetings. We volunteer time beyond the regular meetings to work with the school district and to teach CERT classes. During regular meetings we receive expert reports from within the city (city manager, HHS, Planning, Toxic Management, BFD, Berkeley Police) and from without (American Red Cross, Easy Does It). We work closely with the remaining OES personnel offering feedback and ideas from our various areas of expertise. For instance, the engineer and the contractor who just joined the council are working on issues of transfer-tax funded home retrofits. While currently the OES can offer no support, we’re hoping that the Planning Department will be helpful in exploring this issue. Finally, this article and similar communication to the city’s residents and politicians offer everyone a glimpse of the life-and-death meaning behind this obscure budget line-item.  

The city should restore the OES as a functioning entity. For instance, here’s what would happen if the city restores the second analyst position, which trained and organized neighborhood disaster teams. Even if it was funded for one year, this action would mean dozens, perhaps hundreds more residents would be able to survive and help others survive, including the most vulnerable of our neighbors. This is the disaster prep equivalent of teaching a person to fish and thereby providing him with fish for a lifetime. Additionally, the city should not restrict the Disaster Council to quarterly meetings, especially when, with just 10 meetings/year, we add institutional memory and extra areas of expertise to the city’s knowledge base. 

Completely avoidable deaths, maimings, and property damage are the results of the penny-wise and pound-foolish approach of the past few budget cycles. I hope the current City Council chooses positive change instead of the damaging status quo when it comes to disaster funding.  


Jesse Townley is vice chair of the Disaster Council, as well as the former executive director of Easy Does It and former vice president of the EDI board of directors. He ran for Berkeley City Council in 2004.