Oversight Hearings Urge OES, OHS Merger, Creation of Dept. of Public Health
For many of us in the legislature, not a day passes when we don’t think about the safety and security of the nation and this state. As elected and appointed officials, it’s our highest calling. But there are some things we can’t control, such as most natural disasters and, God forbid, acts of terrorism.
However, there are many things we can control. This includes everything from emergency planning and protecting critical assets, to ensuring that all necessary emergency resources and equipment such as medical supplies and emergency communication systems are available and functional. After more than a dozen policy hearings the Assembly has either convened alone or participated in with the Senate, we are now, finally at the point, where I believe a consensus has been arrived at, that will allow this State to take the next step in protecting its citizens.
The time has come to rethink the current state organizational structure for matters of emergency preparedness and homeland security. We now have two separate state entities responsible for different, and sometimes overlapping, responsibilities in the areas of emergency preparedness and response and homeland security: the Office of Emergency Services (OES), with almost 500 employees and a budget of $1 billion dollars, and the Office of Homeland Security (OHS), with 32 staff and a budget of $367 million.
The Governor’s proposed budget contemplates establishing OHS as an independent entity, effective 1/1/2007. Instead, I would suggest, that they need to operate as one cabinet-level agency. A new Office of Emergency Preparedness and Homeland Security would provide the clear chain of command that is needed during emergencies. It would also allow for the specific responsibilities of the two offices to be better defined. This would be good for both management and for accountability reasons, which have suffered under the current structure.
I am calling for the merger of the Office of Emergency Services and the Office of Homeland Security to create a cabinet-level post for these vital offices, an increased effort to make communications interoperability a reality, and the creation a of State Department of Public Health.
It is only a matter of time before California is rocked with a natural or man-made disaster. The State of California must be prepared to plan and respond to earthquakes, fires, floods, disease or terrorist attacks. Right now, there is a good chance we would fall flat on our faces in major crisis. The changes we are recommending would go far in improving this system.
Currently, the State of California’s disaster and emergency response agencies are spread through mid-level bureaucracies. Many have to go up a chain of command to be able to coordinate with another department. During a crisis, valuable time would be lost in navigating these channels.
This same discussion is still occurring at the federal level, where they still haven’t got it right either, which is disappointing given the governmental blundering that surfaced before, during, and after Katrina. On this point, just last week, a bipartisan US Senate Report was issued calling for yet another reorganization of FEMA, which would effectively be dismantled and replaced with a new National Preparedness and Response Authority.
California needs to heed the lessons learned from other natural disasters in terms of how government prepared for and responded to these situations so that our citizens are better protected. We need to take note of the significant number of recommendations that have been proposed by Congress and the Administration on this subject. We need to get it right.
All of us will all be partners in this effort: the Administration, the Legislature, the public, and the private sectors. Today’s hearing focused on three key subjects: the governance structure of OES and OHS; the proposed establishment of the Department of Public Health and other public health issues; and emergency communication system interoperability.
At the hearing, Stanley Zax, the Vice-Chairman of the state Little Hoover Commission, testified eloquently regarding the subcommittee he led for the Commission and the Commission’s adoption of a major report that calls for more leadership on this issue and a reorganization of OES and OHS. I should also note that Mr. Zax led the Little Hoover effort 3-years ago that also called for the establishment of a state Department of Public Health.
Along with the nonpartisan Legislative Analysts Office and Little Hoover Commission, all have concluded that the states’ offices and departments that deal directly with emergencies and disasters need a clear chain of command. Leadership is needed to ensure that the state establishes a radio interoperability plan to make certain that public safety departments at the local, state and federal levels can communicate in a disaster. Leadership is needed to address our lack of readiness regarding evacuation and mass shelter plans in the event of a catastrophic disaster. Lives depend upon it.
We in the Assembly hope to address those issues and more in the coming months. In the meantime, our hope is that the Governor will take a cue from the failures of those he has criticized in the federal government and take real action on California’s emergency preparedness.
It is firmly established that without a clear line of communication, a crisis can quickly devolve into a full-blown catastrophe that could threaten the lives of thousands of people. The mistakes made by the federal government in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina cannot be repeated here in California.