John Fernandes admits that it took him awhile to see the importance of bringing everyone to the table — government, nonprofit and community partners — when creating plans and thinking about disaster preparedness. Before becoming administrator of the Los Angeles County Office of Emergency Management, he worked in law enforcement and said that when working on the street he had to make decisions without consulting a group. “After years of that, then coming into emergency management, I found it to be an obstacle that I had to overcome,” Fernandes said during the All-Hazards/All-Stakeholders Summit in Los Angeles on Wednesday, Nov. 2.
His previous cop mentality — if everyone is in charge then no one is in charge — has changed to an “understanding that we all have a piece” in disaster preparedness.
Now Los Angeles County, which is composed of 88 cities, works to leverage partnerships with all of the agencies and organizations that its citizens rely on. Fernandes said the county’s large size is both an advantage and a disadvantage — its size allows it to receive DHS and Urban Areas Security Initiative grants, but the large number of constituents can lead to conflicting priorities.
Representatives in the Office of Emergency Management are assigned to partnerships to not only keep up-to-date on the capabilities and needs of community- and faith-based organizations, but also keep those partners current on what is happening in the county. “Sustaining partnerships is critical,” Fernandes said.
Other initiatives in the county include having a representative from the private sector in the emergency operations center and examining how the office can best use social media to deliver emergency-related messaging to the public.
Fernandes called complacency one of the biggest enemies of emergency managers and that’s why there’s always a need to stress training and education with the public. The county created an Emergency Survival Guide to provide preparedness information about all types of emergencies to its constituents. The guide also provides pages for people to create an emergency plan and draw out escape routes from homes, among other pertinent information. Fernandes cited outreach in schools as one step to public preparedness because children will repeat the information to their parents and caregivers.
Another key to emergency management, Fernandes said, is leveraging the resources of California and federal government. The state has an office, CaliforniaVolunteers, that coordinates volunteers in times of disaster. Los Angeles County has a full-time consultant who works with the office, and during the Station Fire in 2009, volunteers logged 5,000 hours of work. According to Fernandes, those volunteer hours saved the county about $500,000.
Finally, it’s important to highlight and remember the efforts and programs that emergency managers and their agencies are creating and sustaining. “Emergency management is very underestimated,” Fernandes said, adding that the field’s efforts are noticed when something goes wrong instead of all the ongoing work to increase public preparedness.