I get asked all the time about what, exactly, does DEM do. It’s a valid question since so much of what we do is behind the scenes; I thought I’d take a crack at explaining our role. I can only speak for us though, since we do things a little different here in the City (I know – shocking that SF is different right?).
I have to admit that coming into this business from the first responder world I had often wondered myself. Even after I took a job as a medical planner for the new OES/HS agency Mayor Newsom formed in 2004 I wasn’t entirely clear on the role of ‘emergency services.’ As a paramedic I didn’t get it – in my mind we (the first responders) were emergency services….really – we were the ones out there rolling to calls at 2AM, putting out the fires, catching the bad guy and saving lives right? What the hell does this “OES” group do anyway? They’re not in the mud or the blood. They don’t wear uniforms (mostly) and you don’t ever see them interface with the public. That’s the way I used to think.
So, what then do we actually do?
We are three things under one roof: emergency management (more on that in a minute), 911 dispatch, and the local EMS agency. In each of those roles we have expert staff and leadership with decades of experience – and in many ways the functions are quite different. That said – they all have one key common element: we help others be successful. We are the definition of a support agency. While we do have a public interface (911 calls for instance) most of our work involves identifying needs and making sure the appropriate entity is engaged –then supporting and coordinating efforts once engaged.
The biggest difference between the functions is scope and time. Our Division of Emergency Communications (911) coordinates resources to respond to events hundreds of times a day, most of which are of a relatively short duration. The Division of Emergency Services coordinates dozens of departments, government agencies and private entities for major emergencies and special events – however it’s far less frequent and generally of a much larger scope than a 911 call (and generally takes a lot longer to close out). Our EMS agency staff sets policies and coordinates medical response both daily and during emergencies – so they are the really long horizon focus and have huge scope in terms of licensure and certification, medical standards and systemic quality improvement.
When asked, one of my favorite ways to describe what we do is use an orchestra analogy. Using this example, DEM serves as the conductor – we don’t play the instruments or tell them how do perform their function, but we do try to make sure the whole group sounds good together by coordinating the individual efforts. The big difference is that we don’t do it alone (and we don’t wear tuxedos to work). DEM staff write & execute plans in concert (like that? Stuck with the whole orchestra thing) with those who provide the direct services. So when we activate the Emergency Operations Center (EOC) there’s a group of experts who represent all the disciplines engaged who collectively solve problems. It’s a brokerage of sorts – the people in the room exchange information and resources toward a common goal. And yes, at times, it’s as noisy and seemingly chaotic as the floor of the NYSE, but, like the exchange it really is controlled chaos and we get the job done.
What do we do when we’re not working in the EOC?
Our philosophy is that community comes first, so we spend a ton of time and resources working on community based resilience initiatives that has led to the Resilient SF program (wrote about that one earlier) and a host of others. We’re pretty advanced in the emergency management world in how we think about preparedness as an organic, holistic exercise in community improvement. Many are still stuck on the idea that a go bag is all you need. But that’s another soap box.
If there’s a major special event (like Fleet Week, for instance) we’re probably in the middle of it, helping plan the public safety aspects. For larger events we’ll activate the EOC and coordinate the activity from there.
We coordinate incident command and emergency management training for departments and stakeholders around the Bay Area. Over the years we’ve delivered dozens of ICS classes, put on special high level trainings for senior and elected officials, public preparedness sessions and done a huge number of outreach activities to engage and encourage people to take preparedness actions.
We are constantly developing, participating in, or delivering table top and functional exercises. It seems like every month we’re in the middle of an exercise – locally, regionally or nationally. San Francisco’s program is often sought out to participate in everything from earthquake to anthrax exercises. It can be a lot of work but it’s an invaluable opportunity to engage our peers and learn things that help us better our own programs.
And of course we plan. We look at what went right (and not so right) every time we activate. By studying what works and what doesn’t we’re able to refine processes and protocols so we’re better next time. The worst thing in the world is a plan that is finished – because once you stop working on it everything becomes stagnant and skills start to degrade. So we activate our people and our plans every time we get an opportunity. And then we learn from the experience, make adjustments and try it again. Each time it gets better and easier.
Just like an orchestra, we rehearse over and over again – because on opening night the last thing you want to do is be off key (or worse, playing from the wrong sheet of music!)
Every day is an adventure around here – I’ve yet to have a ‘slow’ day or one that I felt was boring. The list in this post is just the tip of the iceberg really – if I tried to write it all down it’d be an encyclopedia rather than a blog. I’m proud of the team here and the pace they keep – it’s demanding to say the least – but they do it, and they’re good at it. For that I have to say thanks to them – and to our constituents who engage with us to make San Francisco a better place to live, work and visit.