Will Tulare County melt into a cauldron of chaos in the event of a major catastrophe? The answer is an unqualified no — not under the capable leadership of Andrew Lockwood and his team at the Tulare County Office of Emergency Services (OES). Lockwood is the Tulare County OES manager and has been working on the Emergency Operation Plan (EOP) since July 2011. On December 3rd, the Tulare County Board of Supervisors adopted the Tulare County Operational Area EOP.
Lockwood was asked to list the top five potential disasters that could threaten Tulare County.
“It’s always the disaster that you are not expecting, the one you don’t see coming,” said Lockwood. For someone who prides himself on being prepared, that is a nightmare scenario. The EOP is designed to handle small local emergencies, such as a flooded highways, but could save thousands of lives during an unexpected disaster, such as a solar flare that could knock out our entire electrical grid.
Disaster experts estimate that we could go three to five days without electricity before society starts to unravel. “That’s about right,” said Lockwood. “Just think that without electricity there would be no pumps to supply water or gas. There would be no food and businesses and schools would be closed because no one could get anywhere without gas.”
The EOP establishes how Tulare County will respond to disasters like this and how it will coordinate recovery efforts. The first priority is to save lives; the second is to protect public health and safety, followed by the protection of property and the environment.
The EOP has established a chain of command so when disaster hits, everyone knows who is in charge. That person would be the emergency services director, Jean Rousseau, whose day job is county administrative officer. If he is indisposed, it would be Mary Lindsay, assistant county administrative officer. Rousseau, Lindsay and anyone else in charge during a disaster have been appointed to their positions, not elected. Elected officials, such as our county supervisors, would take on the role of keeping their constituents informed about where to find help or shelter.
All county employees are emergency responders in the event of a disaster, and the EOP outlines their jobs and informs them where to report for duty. The EOP also coordinates between all departments such as police, fire, sheriff and volunteer organizations such as the American Red Cross and the Salvation Army.
“The goal of this EOP is to provide a framework for implementing an effective emergency response, cost recovery activities, maintaining essential public services and restoring normal operations following a major emergency,” according to the manual.
Wide Range of Disasters Could Strike Tulare County
Tulare County is vulnerable to a wide range of potential hazards, from Tule fog to volcanic ash fallout from an eruption in the Mammoth Lake region. But it’s the known potential disasters that Lockwood thinks about most often. “If a dam breaks, that’s what keeps me up at night,” said Lockwood. “We would have 30 minutes to get the public out of Porterville if Success Dam breaks. That’s not a lot of time.”
During emergencies, when the public needs immediate notification, Tulare County has developed a warning system, called AlertTC, which would alert citizens to stay indoors during a hazardous materials spill or to evacuate in the event of a severe flood. The problem is that the county only has access to landlines.
“That’s not going to help if you are out grocery shopping,” said Lockwood who encourages everyone to register their cell phone number or place of work with AlertTC, so they can receive emergency messages from the county. He also encourages people not to disable the government alert system. “Make sure to leave the government alerts on because Tulare County has access to their system in the case of an emergency.”
Lockwood said that many people turned off their government alert system a few months ago when they received an Amber Alert about a San Diego child. He said people don’t want to be bothered by far away emergencies but warned the next alert could be about a hazardous spill in your neighborhood. Lockwood said he advised those in charge of the government alert system to use it more judiciously in the future.
Who are you supposed to call in the event of an emergency? Not Rousseau the emergency services director.
“Jean only deals with the emergency personnel, not the public,” said Lockwood. In the case of a life-threatening emergency, call 911. But if everyone calls 911 after an earthquake, then no one will get through. So if you do not have a life-threatening situation, the best number to call is 211. Tulare County Emergency Services has partnered with 211 to handle an overflow of calls during an emergency to direct those in need to shelters, food, water or warming centers. Another option if you need assistance is the nonemergency lines for the police and fire department.
The EOP was activated in August when lightning struck a Southern California Edison substation in Visalia causing a fire and a nearly countywide blackout. The EOP established who was in charge and brought agencies together to implement a coordinated response. Lockwood was the Emergency Operation Center (EOC) director for the county and Visalia City Manager Steve Salomon was the EOC director for the City of Visalia. No other EOCs were activated. Everything went so smoothly the effects of the emergency were almost completely mitigated and everything was back to normal in 24 hours.
All emergencies are categorized as low, mid or high level depending on their severity. The fire did enough damage to cause a power failure throughout most of the county. But SoCal Edison had an assessment in about 20 minutes and knew they could get power restored sometime that night, making the incident a low level emergency. Nevertheless, an Emergency Operations Center was set up and the medical and health branch of the EOP was activated along with the Fire Department branch.
With a power outage, those in a vulnerable state of health are in the most danger. The discovery that 125 patients’ ventilators were not working properly was the biggest challenge facing Lockwood during the fire. Relocating so many people on ventilators is tricky; finding a location with reliable electricity was even trickier. But because the medical branch of the EOP was functioning, they were prepared and no one suffered any ill effects in the move.
The EOP also categorizes emergencies into high frequency or low frequency occurrences. Earthquakes and tornados are very unlikely to strike in Tulare County, but their impact would be huge, so the EOP has to be prepared. But the most likely disaster to hit Tulare County is severe weather.
“Climate change is creating a new normal and severe weather is becoming the new normal,” said Lockwood. He said that within our lifetime, the nation’s GDP could be consumed by the cost of weather disasters if there weren’t EOPs in place.
One of the most dangerous disasters facing Tulare County that would be placed in the high frequency category is a hazardous material spill. High frequency means that it will probably happen in our lifetime, unlike a volcanic eruption, which probably won’t happen in our lifetime. Industrial, manufacturing and agriculture industries are all big chemical users and are all present in Tulare County. So are the hospitals. The state is also using Highway 99 to transport hazardous materials to the Kettleman City hazardous material disposal site. “That’s a disaster not a lot of people have thought about. You just don’t want to know what is in most of those trucks driving next to you on Highway 99,” said Lockwood.
At the December 3rd meeting, after Lockwood finished his presentation, Supervisor Allan Ishida expressed concern over the possibility of San Francisco and Los Angeles being hit with huge disasters. “We are not prepared if 100,000 people show up,” he said. Although the first place refugees would settle if they had to evacuate the Bay Area or Los Angeles, would be Bakersfield or Modesto, the state may decide to put 20,000 refugees in Visalia. “The federal government placed Katrina refugees here and some of them stayed,” said Lockwood. Tulare County did not have a say in the matter.
In the case of a huge influx of refugees, the EOP has designated Mass Care Shelter Sites. Their first choice is the International Agriculture Center, but this facility is private so the OES needs to work out an agreement with them. The other options are the Tulare County Fair Grounds — which were also used as a way station during the Japanese internment — the Visalia Convention Center and local stadiums.
Now that we have an Emergency Operations Plan, does anyone know how to use it?
“We are shooting for January 2014 to start training our first line of defense, the police and fire chiefs and city managers,” said Lockwood.