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Lake County, Calif., Emergency Manager Takes All-Hazards Approach

Leah Sautelet, emergency services manager in Northern California's Lake County, discusses what it takes to be an emergency manager, her biggest fears, and how young women and girls can get into the profession.

Lake County, Calif., Emergency Services Manager Leah Sautelet at an education booth.
Leah Sautelet
Wildfires have burned more than 60 percent of the land mass in Lake County, Calif., in the last decade, and the cycles of drought then a good winter keep the threat alive.

Yet it is not the wildfire that Leah Sautelet, Lake County's emergency services manager, worries about, but rather the hazards that haven't made their presence felt yet, like earthquakes.

“Beyond the specific hazard, the bigger worry, the kind that keeps you up at night is, are we reaching the community enough?” Sautelet said. “Are we getting information out in a manner that is something that people of all walks of life hear and receive?”

Sautelet is a part of a two-person team responsible for emergency services in this Northern California community, a challenge made increasingly difficult by the intensity of the wildfire seasons in recent years combined with drought and the threat of earthquakes and other hazards.

Sautelet can’t lean on fighting against one hazard, but has to take an approach that keeps the locals ready for anything.

“What I’m trying to do is develop a core message of five points to be prepared for all hazards, and then we just spit that out as much as we can in all different formats and ways to try to reach people where they are. It’s a work in progress,” she said. “We have our alert warning tools of social media, we’ve developed a website that we just launched.”

In a community of 66,000, not everyone is going to sign up for alerts. So Sautelet has garnered the help of groups such as the Rotary Club and the local realtors to keep their members and clients abreast of the hazards.

“Really the most difficult part as an emergency manager is needing to know so many different aspects of so many different topics and not really being an expert or go-to for any of them,” she said.

“We have to interface with different groups like law enforcement, fire, the community, the different populations — we need to cover all the different hazards.”

That takes adaptability, which she said is one of the keys to being a successful emergency manager.

“You have to be able to take many different approaches — sitting with fire chiefs, with law enforcement, heading out to a community town hall — you’ve got to be able to kind of change your approach as to how you reach people.”

But when she hears from the community, from someone who said that she made a difference during a storm or wildfire, that’s what makes the complexity and stress worth it.

“On the other hand, what I love about this job is the planning, I absolutely love the planning side,” Sautelet said.

She said that emergency management is not really understood and that anyone thinking about getting into the field should get an understanding of the complexities and what it entails. She said women or girls thinking of getting into the profession should reach out to a local emergency manager.

“Don’t be shy about reaching out to their local offices of emergency management because we’re all, I think across the state and country, pretty friendly and would welcome the opportunity to sit down and give a tour, talk more about their goals, and what they think the field is or what they want to know about it.”

She said taking Federal Emergency Management Agency courses is a good start since they are free, and getting an internship or entry-level job in the field or related field is a good option.

“It would be great if we could get people enthusiastic about emergency management to get into the field, but also people who have an understanding of the role.”


Jim McKay is the editor of Emergency Management magazine.