State’s disaster, security offices set to merge

Within weeks, a merger is planned between the state’s emergency services personnel and its homeland security contingent, a sweeping move intended to create a unified command and appears to be more than a simple bureaucratic reshuffling.

The state’s bureaucracy has under gone sea changes in the past – most recently with the splitting of the Department of Health Services into two entities. There, one was set up to handle health care issues and the other to handle the multibillion-dollar Medi-Cal program. Such changes in the state’s sprawling bureaucracy seem remote to the public.

But the joining of the Office of Emergency Services and the Office of Homeland Security is different: Both offices deal with high-profile, high-dollar issues and events in the public eye.

“It was clear from a series of public hearings, from talking to the first-responders, that the basic single question in an emergency situation was, ‘Who’s in charge?’ This resolves who’s in charge,” said Assemblyman Pedro Nava, D-Santa Barbara, the author of the unification bill.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and others believe the shakeup ultimately will result in a clear-cut chain of command in the teeth of natural or man-made disasters — or terrorist attacks. It will, for the first time, place one person directly in charge of security-related issues and disaster response. From the OES and the  OHS,  it will create a new agency, the California Emergency Management Agency, or CalEMA, which will be run by a person who will be a member of the governor’s cabinet.  Currently, the heads of the OHS and OES are in the governor’s cabinet.

The chief of the new agency has not been picked, but it appears likely that it will be someone from within the administration.
OHS Director Matt Bettenhausen and OES Director Henry Renteria are likely contenders.  Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who will make the choice, has not yet decided. As he considers the decision, the merger plan is proceeding to be in place by January. Part of the merger includes a major audit – looking at both fiscal and performance issues – currently under way by the Department of Finance.

The merger follows years of discussion, hearings, reports – including studies by the Little Hoover Commission and the Legislature’s nonpartisan fiscal adviser – that disclosed flaws in the way the two offices coordinate their duties. The most common complaints: An imperfect understanding of the command structure, tensions between the offices and the locals, and jurisdictional disputes.
But the merger appears to be going smoothly, although on paper and in terms of their missions, the two offices are dramatically different. The merger is an attempt to integrate each office within the other, rather than have an agency with two separate divisions.
OES has nearly 600 people and goes through some $1.45 billion annually, including about $400 million from the state’s General Fund. The agency, which has been around for decades, backs up the locals in an emergency, provides equipment and personnel, helps with training and coordinates the state’s response to major disasters, natural and otherwise. The OES, its command center in suburban Sacramento, has fire trucks, earth movers, satellite communications gear and personnel that can be deployed statewide.

The OHS, formed by an executive order in 2005, is much smaller.  Including employees under contract, it has a personnel level of about 140 or less. The office, among other things, plays a critical role in the distribution of federal anti-terrorism, training and security grants to California law enforcement agencies. Its grant-distribution function gives the office a power and influence that is larger than its basic numbers suggest.

The agencies’ basic missions should be intact after the merger, one official said.

“The missions will remain the same. The OES is mainly a supporter of first responders, and we deal with terrorism prevention,” said OHS spokesman Jay Alan. “Our mission is to protect California from man-made terrorism events… Those missions at their core will still be there.”

For Nava, who pushed the bill through twists and turns over two years, the final agency will be worth the effort – and better organized than it is now.

“We will be focusing on a response to ‘all-hazards risk,’ rather than on discrete kinds of emergencies,” Nava said.
“I think,” he added, “that everybody will have a benefit coming to them.”

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