Urban Area Perspective – San Francisco

Rob Dudgeon is a deputy director of the San Francisco Department of Emergency Management, where he leads the Division of Emergency Services. The division is responsible for coordinating the city’s multidisciplinary response to emergencies, developing emergency plans, and managing the city’s exercise programs and public preparedness campaigns. In addition, the division is responsible for managing homeland security grants for the City.  He also serves as a senior advisor to Mayor Gavin Newsom on matters of disaster preparedness and emergency management. Dudgeon previously served as EMS systems coordinator for the San Francisco Department of Public Health. Prior to that, Dudgeon served in numerous field and management positions with American Medical Response in San Francisco, Marin, and Sonoma counties, including clinical and educational services coordinator, field operations supervisor, critical care supervisor, paramedic, and dispatcher. Dudgeon holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in management from St. Mary’s College of California.
What are the responsibilities of your office?
The best ways to look at what we do is as the conductor in an orchestra. What I mean by the conductor of the orchestra is that we’re not necessarily in charge, but somebody’s got to stand in the middle to bring all the various players together and make sure it sounds good. And that’s really what we do—we help make sure that the police are getting what they need to do their mission, the fire department is getting what it needs to perform its mission, and, at the same time that all the ancillary departments—human services, the department of technology—are not only getting what they need, but are also able to work across departmental levels to accomplish a mission if you will.
And the city’s Emergency Operations Center (EOC), which we manage, is not necessarily a command-and-control hub. It’s more like a brokerage, if you will. It’s exchange of information, ideas and resources and keeping track of it all, and then being that liaison point to our state, federal, and other outside partners as well. That’s our job: to do the planning, to bring the players together, to make sure that we have the right people at the table, and then ultimately, once we gather all their expertise, pull it into one plan, and then make sure it gets executed.
Along with earthquakes, what are some of the major threats and assets that make your region unique?
Obviously earthquakes are our number one threat, and that really is the backbone of our planning not just because of demonstrated risk, but because if you can manage an earthquake on a catastrophic level you can manage just about anything. But we also have areas in the city that are vulnerable to tsunami inundation, which is a low probability, high-impact very event.
Obviously we have a terrorist threat. There are a number of icons in the city and critical infrastructure that we’re concerned about, particularly relative to the private sector. We’re still a financial hub and an icon being what we are and where we are. The terrorist threat is there, although it’s by no means as great as New York. We have never been struck and we’re happy to keep it that way.
We have all the usual things, too. Occasionally we have mudslides, we have weather issues, and we have minor flooding. We don’t have a river running through the city but we do get a fair amount of urban flooding periodically depending on how much rain we’re getting.
Fire is actually a tremendous concern in San Francisco. If you’ll recall after the 1906 earthquake it wasn’t as much the earthquake that destroyed the city but the days of fire afterward. And while we’ve come a long way in fire safety, we still have a very densely populated piece of geography here.
What is the region’s approach to regional planning and allocation of federal Urban Area Security Initiative (UASI) funds?
Prior to the 2006 grant cycle there were three UASI regions in the Bay Area—San Jose, Oakland San Francisco. Now the entire Bay Area is one, and that just came out in the 2006 grant guidance, there were no pre-meetings about it. So we literally had about 60 days to figure out our governance and submit a joint application. The reason we were able to do it was that our efforts to regionalize actually predated that. One of the first projects I worked on when I came to the department in 2005 was a regional emergency coordination plan. We’d taken the ten counties around San Francisco Bay and established an advisory group and approval authority. That group was in the middle of vetting that plan and writing it through various subcommittees when we got this notice that we would be one UASI region. So we just rolled the existing group into the governance model for the UASI. It really did work out.
Some UASI region staff are loaned employees of our department, others are employees of other counties, but they’re all contributed to serve on the management team. There’s a general manager and a team that report to an approval authority which has six members, and that is actually comprised of San Jose, Oakland and San Francisco, and then the counties that are within them, so it’s Oakland, Alameda County, San Jose, Santa Clara County, and San Francisco and San Francisco County. This was all brought together by a very wide memorandum of understanding that all the various counties and cities have signed onto. There’s still been a lot of bumps in the road and a lot of growing pains to get us to be really functioning well, but we had the skeleton there when we were mandated.
Given the region’s experience with natural hazards, how much did 9-11 change the region’s preparedness?
I think it has made us much stronger as a region. California is unique in that for the last 20 or 30 years we’ve had very strong mutual aid. We have a mass mutual aid agreement that covers the entire state. Every county is signed onto it. During fire season it’s been said—and demonstrated—that we can move 1,000 pieces of apparatus in a day as a state if we need to through this mutual aid system. But working across jurisdictions with agencies other than fire and law enforcement—like public works and animal care and control and health department and EMS—was rare. They rarely had to provide mutual aid to other counties. But post-9-11, and more importantly post-Katrina, it’s really opened people’s eyes to just what a regional catastrophic event looks like and what it takes to respond to and recover from that. And that’s where I think we’ve really seen a lot of growth regionally is that we now recognize that we may need to provide public works support to Oakland or vice versa.
During wildfires in Santa Cruz in 2009 we actually deployed animal care and control teams on a mutual aid basis. During response to the COSCO Busan oil spill in San Francisco Bay in 2007, our animal care and control assistance to the federal and state resources, and across the board we were better able to collectively deal with an oil spill, which is kind of multijurisdictional by its very nature. We were much better able to deal with that as a region and speaking collectively with one voice, where before it would have been literally 10 or 20 or 30 because you had every city involved in it trying to deal with the Coast Guard and he state. So I think it’s made us work together, we have a much more comfortable working relationship because we see each other all the time. I’m sure you’ve heard it said before that “It’s not the plan that matters it’s the planning,” and that really does hold true. We interact with our peers and our counterparts much more frequently now than I think ever happened in the 1990s.
Is fiscal sustainability a challenge for your office? If so, how are you adjusting?
Of course everybody is feeling the fiscal pinch, there’s no two ways about it. Typically it starts with cuts to nonessential services, and that’s happened across the board. Anything that’s administrative and nonessential has definitely been shaved down or eliminated. But I can also say that this whole idea of disaster preparedness and public safety is of paramount importance to San Francisco and San Francisco voters. For instance, a few years ago when the Fire Department was facing some fiscal crises, a voter initiative passed dictating that no firehouses be closed. That means the money comes off the top of the agency, not from the front lines. The people take it seriously here, so those essential services here do tend to be maintained without too much in the way of cuts. But everybody is feeling these cuts and certainly we’re trying to maximize our use of homeland security grant funds like any other jurisdiction.
How would you characterize your office’s relationship with its federal partners? What would you change, if anything?
Our relationships are strong, there’s no two ways about it. And it has improved over the years. Obviously any time an organization changes there’s a growth period and changes in how the organization deals with its constituents. That applies to the advent of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and the merger of California Office of Emergency Services and the California Office of Homeland Security. There were growing pains, if you will, but nothing insurmountable. And I think in the end our relationship as a stakeholder to those entities has always been strong, and as they’ve worked out their issues it’s made it easier to work with them. There’s nothing that I would point to and say, “It’s got to change” at this point. They’re on the right track, things continue to get smoothed out, people continue to understand the various roles and responsibilities. Every year we go through a learning cycle and it gets better.



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