Pictured: Dec. 4, 2017, the Thomas Fire burned several buildings at Vista Del Mar Behavioral Hospital, which had been evacuated through decisions of staff, prior to official evacuation orders being issued. Photo submitted.
by Kimberly Rivers
With a propensity for earthquakes, year-round fire season, king tides, mudslides and now tornados, personal preparedness is a day-to-day part of California Central Coast living. But with emergency incidents increasing in frequency and intensity, pressure on local agencies is mounting to demonstrate that they have all segments of the community in mind as they develop emergency response plans. What is the appropriate role of local government in emergency response planning? What is the most efficient?
“Personal preparedness is key,” said Patrick Maynard, interim director for the Ventura County Office of Emergency Services. “Government has limited resources, and the last thing I want to do is overpromise. For those sitting back and expecting government to come in and save the day for every last person, [that] is setting yourself up for failures. Plan ahead, help yourself and help your neighbors whenever possible.”
He emphasized this for people living in high-hazard areas. “Plan and prepare, know the alternative ways in and out. Contemplate alternative routes.” He pointed out that local agencies are unlikely to be efficient at determining the best way in and out of an area, as that can be dependent on how an event unfolds.
This is just one reason the county isn’t preparing an emergency plan for any and all hazards, as suggested by a recent audit of emergency policies and plans. Ventura County is one of three counties (Butte and Sonoma are the other two) in the state that may not be adequately planning to provide support to particular populations of people in the event of an emergency. These populations include elderly people who don’t drive, homebound individuals without family to help, the mentally ill and those who don’t speak English.
State finds county preparedness lacking
“Ventura [is] not as prepared as they could be to protect their residents during future natural disasters because they have not followed key practices for emergency planning,” states the report titled, “California Is Not Adequately Prepared to Protect Its Most Vulnerable Residents from Natural Disasters,” which was released in early December 2019 by the California State Auditor. The report cites the lack of a “specific plan for critical emergency functions,” such as lining up sources for accessible transportation and shelter supplies in advance, as an example of how the county is not aligning with these “key practices,” and thus failing to address the needs of the entire community.
Maynard points to the positive response outcomes following the Thomas and Woolsey fires and that the county is preparing to complete a Community Needs Assessment this year as evidence that the policies in place in the county are sufficient and do provide the needed response for all residents.
“We are working internally to identify what that process will look like,” said Maynard. It is likely to include aggregate data about general needs in particular areas. But, he points out, having that info won’t necessarily “change the response,” pointing to the fact that the county’s response is often “dynamic,” depending on how the event unfolds and needs arise. As an example, he explained that even if it was known that there was a concentration of 25 people in West Ventura who were in wheelchairs, that would not alter the county’s response. “Our response now already plans for that population being there. We don’t need to know precise numbers . . . We know we need the resources on hand; we distribute them as the situation dictates.”
Another finding in the state’s report with which Maynard disagreed regards the need for the county to get information about the number of people receiving in-home care, who may not be able to evacuate themselves. Maynard says state law prohibits that information from being shared until a threat is “imminent,” but the report cites other areas have been able to get general information without names and addresses, thus protecting the individual’s privacy.
A bill, SB794, introduced on Jan. 7 by Sen. Hannah-Beth Jackson, will improve emergency alert systems for vulnerable populations by allowing local governments to access information about residents with particular access needs and other disabilities that may make evacuating in an emergency hard or impossible.
“The State Auditor’s report on California’s most deadly wildfires made clear that we must do more to help our most vulnerable residents in the event of a natural disaster,” said Jackson in a written statement. She said the bill will help “local governments identify those with access and functional needs so they can more effectively assist them when the next disaster strikes. Ensuring all residents have the information and assistance they need during an emergency is a matter of life or death.”
“Generally speaking in Ventura County, we are pretty proud of the coordination process for evacuation. We have a pretty robust process internally that we use — several stakeholders, experts like hydrologists with watershed protection, geologists — to evaluate the dynamics of whatever the incident presents with.” While he explained that the process is “not documented in the form of a plan,” Maynard related that when this process was used in the response for Thomas and Woolsey, “we had great success with it.” The groups and stakeholders are identified early on and throughout the incident there are conference calls, sometimes multiple times a day, between police, fire, city agencies and special districts, all of whom are involved in determining responses beginning to end — from evacuation orders to repopulation. “We do that every well.”
When asked about how first responders know that process or how it could be replicated if leadership were to change, Maynard said that his office is going to “document the process in a response guide” — but that it won’t be a “tactical”-level document as recommended by the report. According to Maynard, that “would result in a 3,000 page plan that would not do anyone much good.” Instead, he emphasized the need to be able to respond fluidly in the wake of each event in each community.
Maynard did agree that the county would benefit from building partnerships with community-based organizations serving different populations of people, and “leverage” the reach and work of those groups in local emergency response planning. He said the Emergency Planning Council will be expanded to include representatives from those organizations and that their feedback and input will be key. He said his team is identifying those groups now, and determining their level of interest in serving on the council. Members of the council are approved by the Ventura County Board of Supervisors.
An evacuation story
At about 11:30 p.m. on the night of Dec. 4, 2017, Jenifer Nyhuis returned to her workplace to assess the situation as the Thomas Fire moved west from Santa Paula. Nyhuis is CEO of Vista Del Mar Behavioral Healthcare Hospital (VDM) on Seneca Street in West Ventura. She had moved to Ventura just six months prior to that night and it would be her first experience of California fires.
“The hospital is surrounded by hills, with one way in and one way out,” said Nyhuis. When she arrived that night, smoke was “billowing over the hills” above the hospital. “I began checking in on patients, and left one building and saw fire coming over the hills. It was pretty scary to say the least and at that point we did not have evacuation orders . . . we decided to evacuate.”
“We did not have transportation available to us,” Nyhuis continued. The local emergency agencies were all stretched thin at that point. “They told us, ‘you are on your own.’ We did a roll call of all the patients and staff,” to determine how many seats in cars they needed and had available. Fortunately, there were enough seats in personal staff vehicles to transport all patients to the Red Cross shelter at the Ventura County Fairgrounds.
Nyhuis credits the drills VDM had done in preparation for just such an event. “The staff were calm, and the patients were calm. The drills really do work; it’s the reason why we do those things . . . [During an emergency] it’s almost like you are going through the motions. Staff didn’t miss anything and the patients really trusted them.”
The evacuation happened quickly and without any injuries. But when the troop of 100 evacuees reached the shelter at the fairgrounds, the initial response was that there wasn’t a space for them. With Nyhuis being new to the area, she relied on the relationships other staff members had in the community.
“Jetta [Zellner] knew a lot of the right people . . . [She] saw the sheriff and was able to talk with him. He said, ‘we have a space for you, we’ll take care of you.’ ” Nyhuis said that support “was a huge piece of the puzzle. You can feel isolated, but when people show up and say ‘we are here, we can help you,’ it makes you feel you are not alone.”
Once all patients were at the shelter, they were evaluated by the hospital physicians. Some patients had been set to be discharged that day, and those discharge orders were written. The hospital had transfer arrangements with two affiliate hospitals in Bakersfield and Pasadena, and a few patients were transported to Santa Barbara. Four patients who needed treatment were transported to Santa Paula Hospital, which luckily didn’t have to evacuate.
“By around 2 or 3 p.m. that day [Dec. 5] all of the patients had been transitioned to other safe locations,” said Nyhuis. Her staff was told to go home and rest. Nyhuis has been awarded the 2019 Šimanek Distinguished Service Award by the California Hospital Association for Behavioral Health in recognition of her leadership in responding to the emergency.
“I imagine no matter what the disaster is, where it is, [you need] a network to tap into, to know who you need to call,” said Nyhuis. In VDM’s case, she explained that all managers now carry a red binder in the trunk of their cars, which contains emergency response plans, policies and a phone tree. It’s updated about every month. “All leadership members can take on the roll of incident command.”
“The most crucial thing is to prepare,” she continued. “I’m not an expert by study or school, but by experience. Dial into whatever you need to continue to keep those under your care safe. A community plan, community collaboration, is truly the one thing you cannot [do without] . . . It cannot happen at the last minute; you don’t have time.”
For information on the Ventura County Emergency Planning Council, visit www.readyventuracounty.org.
The California State Auditor report is online at auditor.ca.gov/reports/2019-103/index.html.