Emergency Management Lessons Learned From the San Bernardino Attack

President Barack Obama and his wife Michelle greet San Bernardino County Supervisor James Ramos and San Bernardino Mayor R. Carey Davis on Dec. 18.

President Barack Obama and his wife Michelle greet San Bernardino County Supervisor James Ramos and San Bernardino Mayor R. Carey Davis on Dec. 18. Will Lester / AP Photo


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WASHINGTON — When news of the horrific Dec. 2 mass shooting in San Bernardino County, California, started to circulate, misinformation about the unfolding emergency situation, especially via social media, made it harder for officials to understand what was going on.

“We started trying to figure out what was factual, as far as the information coming through,” James Ramos, the chairman of the county’s Board of Supervisors, said Monday at the National Association of Counties’ Legislative Conference in the nation’s capital.

The attack at the Inland Regional Center in San Bernardino, which would kill 14 people and wounded 22 more, happened around 11 a.m. local time. But factual information about what had happened would be difficult to come by until a meeting two hours later.

“During this time, we were hearing those who were wounded were county employees, but no one really confirmed it until that 1 o’clock meeting,” Ramos said.

Reports of a second attack at Patton State Hospital turned out to be false, and in one case a person said to be alive on social media had died. So the county government held back information and closed all offices for the next two days, except for constitutionally required essential services, to give law enforcement room to conduct its investigation.

Once the FBI got involved, county supervisors found themselves watching the same press conferences as the public for updates.

Janice Rutherford, one of two Board of Supervisors members in the county at the time of the attack, recalled staff poring over lists of names trying to guess who may have been inside the room when it was attacked.

County governments should keep employee emergency contact information updated, she said.  Following the San Bernardino attacks, Rutherford said that when authorities were reaching out to inform next of kin, they ended in a few cases contacting an ex-romantic interest.

Rutherford also advised officials find a private place to do their own grieving away from the public.

“We all know what the perfect response is, but the reality of disaster is something quite different,” she said. “There’s nothing that prepares you for that specifically.”

The most important step the county took in the attack’s aftermath, Rutherford said, was assigning a single point of contact for each of the approximately 90 people directly affected to handle everything from medical and insurance issues to office closures. Those contacts remain in place today.

Listening to employees during and after an emergency is important, Ramos said, as health department staff felt more comfortable meeting with supervisors outside the county building in a local residence.

Also of critical importance is urging employees to get good sleep, Rutherford said, so staff members stay on their toes for the intense disaster response and recovery.

Other experts on Monday morning’s panel spoke more generally about things counties can do to recover from and prepare for an emergency.

Federal Emergency Management Agency grants are better thought of as large-scale public works programs, said Mike Herman, an Ernst & Young emergency management and disaster services consultant.

“The FEMA public assistance program doesn’t assist the public,” said Herman, a former legislative and regulatory counsel for FEMA.

Instead, it provides grants for repairs to infrastructure and reimbursement for debris removal and emergency costs.

The ad hoc program “plops into your community after a disaster,” he added, and is ambiguous by design so the president has flexibility when addressing disasters.

FEMA programs make use of a temporary workforce, Herman said, so county supervisors should expect to speak with a revolving door of project heads during a long-term disaster.

As far as emergency preparation, counties should secure resources ahead of potential disasters.

Without proper planning in the midst of an emergency, counties often find vendors are booked up and unwilling to help or that their cost is higher post-disaster, Steve Trainor, program director for the Institute for Building Technology and Safety.

“A lot of procurement systems require 60 or 90 days to get through a county process, and that’s just not feasible in a disaster-recovery scenario,” he said.

Fast-tracking procurement helps, Herman said, but federal grant rules must still be taken into account.

Rutherford recommended counties examine their insurance policies and see if they cover “terrorist incidents.” Declaring one is useful when facing lawsuits so a shooting attack like the one in San Bernardino can’t be labeled a “workplace incident.”

Interdepartmental training was another aspect of emergency preparation that played a critical role in the response to San Bernardino’s mass shooting.

“The first four officers in the room were from four different agencies,” Rutherford said. “They had never met each other before, but they knew how to work together.”

Dave Nyczepir is a News Editor at Government Executive’s Route Fifty.

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