Public Comment

Commentary: City Needs to Rethink Emergency Services Hierarchy

By Martin J. Alperen
Thursday July 02, 2009 - 10:03:00 AM

Berkeley is about to implement a wrong decision that will impact its emergency services for decades. Specifically, my comments are about the placement of the emergency services coordinator (ESC) within the City of Berkeley hierarchy, i.e., as a third level reporting employee of the Fire Department—and the restrictive role of emergency services that such positioning supports.  

My education, training, background, and experiences, plus what I learned having just applied for the ESC position, permit me to comment on this matter. Very briefly, I have been a police officer, a practicing attorney for 20 years including 11 in private practice and seven as an assistant attorney general (criminal prosecutor). For six years I was in charge of a search-and-rescue group. In 2006 I received a master’s degree in Homeland Security from the U.S.–government-sponsored, Naval Postgraduate School’s Center for Homeland Defense and Security. CHDS is the nation’s premier homeland security educator. My graduate thesis was about preparedness. 

Fire Chief Pryor demonstrated far-sighted leadership by seeking to reorganize the Office of Emergency Services (OES). My concern is that its implementation is way off the mark. The current arrangement and hierarchical placement in the Fire Department severely limits the development of emergency services.  

Berkeley’s Disaster Plan goal is to “make Berkeley a disaster-resistant community that can survive, recover from and thrive after a disaste.” Berkeley’s goal is an excellent description of the concept of “resiliency.” Resiliency is not synonymous with preparedness. 

Preparedness is a component of resiliency. In engineering, resiliency is the ability of metal, for example, to return to its original state after being deformed. The same concept applies to social systems and communities. As currently configured, the OES/ESC is not best suited to reach Berkeley’s goal.  

It does not matter what we name the office. The focus and name of our country’s public safety-type activities has evolved over the years. During the Cold War, we called it civil defense. Later our focus was natural disasters and after 9/11, it was terrorism. Our preparedness is now directed toward “all hazards.”  

Emergency Services is greater than fire, rescue, EMS, and police. The planning and skills required to thrive after disaster are very different from those required to respond and survive one. Emergency services required to meet Berkeley’s goal include contributions from: Health and Human Services because of its Public Health, Mental Health, Environmental Health, and Aging Divisions; Parks, Recreation, and Waterfront (for emergency “staging areas,” the waterfront for emergency provisions, equipment, and evacuation); the Department of Transportation (for pre-disaster contracts for emergency evacuation); Public Works (for pre-disaster contracts for rubble removal); Housing (for pre-disaster contracts for housing both in and out of Berkeley); Information Technology (continuity of government and operations, and communications both voice and data); the city attorney; the city clerk; Human Resources to coordinate volunteers; Finance; City Council, of course; and the Animal Shelter.  

The position at issue was approved by Measure GG, November 2008. Between 1992 and 2000, Berkeley has voted six special taxes related to preparedness. The electorate is active in the area of emergency services and preparedness. For this reason and many others, including its physical size, population, geographical and political relationships with San Francisco and Oakland, UC Berkeley, a committed and educated citizenry, open minded government, and well trained, professional infrastructure (EMS, Fire Department, Police Department), Berkeley has the potential to be the state’s most resilient community and a nation-wide model.  

The current ESC job description is as follows: “equivalent to graduation from an accredited four-year college or university with major coursework in emergency management, public policy, planning, public or business administration or a closely related field; and two years of professional experience in emergency management, emergency preparedness, disaster response, emergency response and/or public education programs.” 

Candidates with much higher academic credentials, such as a master’s degree from CHDS, are available. Persons with more than two years of professional experience are available. Career paths other than those listed may provide an excellent background. 

One of the questions asked of me during my interview was have I taught first-aid courses. With a broad, big picture, 50,000-foot view of emergency services, teaching first aid becomes less important. The Red Cross has many people capable of teaching first-aid classes. There are very few practitioners with advanced degrees. 

Measure GG also funded the position of “assistant fire chief in charge of the OES” yet, according to the job description, only one sixteenth of the assistant fire chief’s proposed duties relates to OES. The maximum salary for the assistant chief is $162,360 annually. Of this amount, only $10,147.50 is directed toward the OES while the remaining $152,000 goes somewhere else. 

In addition, according to the job description, the assistant fire chief who is to supervise the OES and the ESC, has fifteen other, additional “duties” to be responsible for. Not one of the 12 “knowledge and skills” or nine “abilities” listed in the job description relates to the OES. Not only are the OES functions ignored in the job description, one person could not possibly do all of the other job requirements and run a first-rate OES. 



1. The Fire Department has already chosen two persons to move forward in the hiring process. I recommend the City Council immediately pause the hiring process for the ESC while rethinking the job specifications and description. I am willing to help with that and would be honored to lend my assistance. Repost the job requiring the broad and in depth knowledge that is developed in the CHDS master’s program. Select a person with an expansive and long range view of emergency services, and enthusiasm, and passion for the subject. 

2. Relocate OES to a position of equivalent autonomy as any other agency. 

3. City Council’s OES authorization should state that all agencies are to cooperate and assist OES to the extent possible as long as such assistance will not adversely affect the agency’s traditional mission, and also specifically state OES has no authority to direct other agencies.  

4. Reverse the already allocated funding. Remove supervision of the OES from the assistant fire chief and send that salary to the director of the OES. The ESC salary should go to an eventual assistant. 



Consider advertising this position for a six-month trial for a person as I have suggested to run the OES while City Council evaluates this position. This way progress can start now. 

Following this suggestion will cost Berkeley less than the amount already budgeted for the assistant fire chief and emergency services coordinator in Proposition GG.  

I am confident you will have applicants to be the director of the OES as an employee at will, a short-term contract, independent contractor, consultant, or whatever terms you request, for some period of months at the current ESC salary, with a review in six months and if satisfactory, a good faith reconsideration of the position and salary increase to what would have been paid to the assistant fire chief, and ability to hire an assistant. There should be monthly reports. 

Berkeley has highest per capita investment in risk reduction in California. It should have the highest return on its investment.  


Martin J. Alperen is a San Francisco resident.