Security Management interviews Rob Dudgeon, deputy director of the San Francisco Department of Emergency Management.
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.
What is the greatest persistent challenge in your mission?
Probably our biggest persistent challenge is public preparedness. San Francisco is a little unique in that we tend to be a very transient city. People are here for a short amount of time and move on. I’ve heard different statistics indicate that the population essentially changes every 10-20 years, just because of natural churn in the area. So trying to motivate people, educate them, get them to make those behavioral change and become more prepared for emergencies across the board is critical. And trying to build community resilience is really at its very foundation dependent on neighbors knowing neighbors. Having a very transitional population makes that more difficult.
We’re actually doing a lot of innovative things beyond “build the kit, make the plan, get involved.” While that’s there, our bigger concern is how do we help people know their neighbors? How do we build stronger communities? That’s where we’re really focused, and it’s things as seemingly irrelevant to disaster preparedness such as urban gardening that actually really move the needle If we can get people together to take an empty lot and turn it into a shared garden, then we have neighbors who know each other and are solving problems together on a day-to-day basis. And really from a disaster standpoint, that’s what you want is people who can come together and solve problems. We use that as a platform to introduce questions like, “What’s resiliency?’” and “What’s ‘prepared?’” and to get people to store food and water and take precautions to mitigate their risks—to secure their house so that shelves aren’t falling on them and such. It gives us an entrée and a platform to work from, because really community resilience comes down to how strong the community is from a people perspective—people knowing each other and taking care of neighbors.
Does the city engage the private sector in its mission? If so are those relationships formalized?
The last time I checked we’re the only local or UASI jurisdiction that actually employs a full-time person to work with the private sector. In most other areas it’s an ancillary duty assigned to a couple different people. But we actually have a planner whose primary job is to go out and work with the private sector. And then beyond that we also work with the various other city entities that are working with the private sector. So for example, in our EOC we’ve created a branch where we can bring in schools and universities, we also bring in representatives from the private sector to have them at the table with us when we manage events.
During H1N1 last year we put together a conference call with the private sector so they had direct access to decision makers actually managing that event, and they were able to ask questions and receive guidance. On that conference call we had something like 12,000 people—I was glad I found that out after the call was over. And we did that call through a public-private partnership because we didn’t have that kind of line capacity, but one of the bigger businesses in town said, “Oh, we do this all the time, we’ll set it up.” So they actually set it up using their conference bridge service, so it worked out just perfectly.
We send out situation reports and make sure that the Building Owners and Managers Association and the Bay Area Human Resource Management Association is on them, and that private sector partners that aren’t members of those organizations can sign up for them. They’re getting the same information that other city departments are getting and they’re getting it as soon as we have it so that they can make decisions about how to run their businesses.
One of the big things that our private sector person has worked on is shelter-in-place issues for the city’s financial district. San Francisco’s probably not going to need to evacuate entirely. We have an evacuation plan but it’s very typical—reverse the roads and leave—because we feel the likelihood is pretty slim. But the financial district surges with a couple hundred thousand people every day, so we really focus on working with the business community there. A realistic scenario is that after an earthquake bridges will be shut down at least for inspection. Running ferries 24 hours a day at capacity—assuming none of the docks that they need are damaged—it would still take three or four days to get everybody out of the financial district. So we’ve really been doing a lot of outreach working with people and coming up with how we’re going to support the financial district to stay put and how we’re going to get people home.
On the small-business front, one of our big initiatives we’re working on involves emergency provisions. Where do you store a few million MREs? Not to mention where do you get the money to buy and replace them every five years or so? We got to looking around and realized that San Francisco has a wealth of restaurants and small stores, all of which have things that people in their neighborhoods need. So as we move forward one of our big initiatives now is to develop memorandums of understanding with these small businesses so that after an emergency is declared, they can make those supplies available to their community and then we can actually reimburse them and seek reimbursement ourselves from the federal government under the Stafford Act. We would eliminate the need for out-of-store MREs, which nobody wants to eat anyway, and we’ve made it possible to get provisions to the public much more quickly. We’ve also eliminated hopefully a tremendous amount of waste, and we’ve put in place a mechanism where we can kick-start the economic recovery in the small business sector. Anyone who knows anything about recovery recognizes that you’ve got to kick-start the economy, you’ve got to get small businesses up and running, get people back to work, and get kids back in school. If you can do those things you can recover much faster and get your city back. If you look at the rate of people returning to New Orleans, it’s just abysmal. So we’re looking at ways that we can take advantage of what we already have, support our merchants, and solve a myriad of problems.
What are the office’s major goals going forward?
We’re really starting to dig into long-term recovery. What are the changes we need to make now to put mechanisms in place to speed that along? That comes down to looking at governance changes and the prospect of not doing business normally, because otherwise you will not get a city rebuilt in any less than a couple of decades. What do we need to do now so we can make those changes if necessary? How do you fund it? So long-term recovery is probably one of our biggest goals going forward. The other is building community resilience, which goes hand-in-hand with recovery. We’ve got the response thing down—I don’t want to say it’s perfect because it never will be, but we’ve got it well in hand to where we can actually focus on resilience and recovery as priorities.