Released: April 8, 1996


The floods of 1995, the 1995 New Year's Eve windstorm, and the nearby 1994 Northridge earthquake prompted the Grand Jury to investigate preparedness for disasters within the County of Santa Barbara. The potential devastation and loss of life and property can be great from natural disasters such as earthquakes, floods, winds or fires. Because of its location and varied geography, the county could also suffer such catastrophic accidents as a dam break, forest fires, coastal oil leaks or toxic/hazardous material damage.


To investigate preparedness for disasters in the cities and unincorporated areas of Santa Barbara County. (Supplementary comments concerning response to and recovery from disasters are included in Exhibits A and B.)


The Grand Jury interviewed the Director and Deputy Director of the Santa Barbara County Office of Emergency Services (OES); various city officials who are in charge of city emergencies; city fire and county sheriff officials; county officials in the departments of Public Works (Flood Control, Roads and Solid Waste), Planning and Development, and Health Services; and officials in the Air Pollution Control District and the Hazardous/Toxic Waste Office.

The Grand Jury talked with leaders of the following community groups: the Santa Barbara Chapter of the American Red Cross, Montecito Emergency Response and Recovery Action Group (MERRAG), Community Awareness and Emergency Response (CAER), Volunteer Organizations Active in Disaster (VOAD), and the president of the South Coast Homeowners Association (SCHA).

The Grand Jury also visited the Gaviota oil and gas processing plant, the Bradbury Dam, offshore oil rigs, the Santa Barbara Harbor Authority and several Ventura and Los Angeles County agencies.



The Governor's Office of Emergency Services (OES) has the day-to-day responsibilities for disaster planning. Local government agencies must follow the state's policies when developing their own plans. The state OES administers Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) grants and provides for mutual aid during a disaster. The state OES is also a watchdog for the Standardized Emergency Management System (SEMS) Guidelines.

In 1993, the state legislature formed the Standardized Emergency Management System (SEMS) to coordinate response to multi-agency and multi-jurisdiction emergencies in California.1 During an emergency, responders converge from many disciplines including fire, law enforcement, medical, care and shelter, utilities, transportation and communications. Each discipline uses its own operational system. In an emergency, each discipline must be able to quickly blend into a single, cohesive organization.

SEMS is intended to facilitate such coordination among all responding agencies.2 By standardizing key elements of the emergency management system, SEMS is intended to facilitate the flow of information within and between five organizational levels:

Although the state does not mandate the use of SEMS, if a local government entity wants state reimbursement for disaster related costs, it must follow the SEMS Guidelines.3 Santa Barbara County does follow SEMS Guidelines.


The Santa Barbara County Office of Emergency Services (OES) provides linkage for emergency preparedness from the wider federal and state levels of communications to the cities and special districts. The OES follows and updates the Multi-Hazard Functional Plan which presents detailed plans for every disaster. This comprehensive manual details the who, what, when, where and how for each level of emergency. In it, the responsibilities of each official are delineated and checklists are ready to ensure proper coordination and service to the affected areas and people during an emergency. (For information about how these plans work when disasters occur, see Exhibit A.) The OES receives SEMS materials and shares them with cities and special districts which are responsible for their own SEMS training.

For planning purposes the OES assumes that the citizens of Santa Barbara County must provide for themselves during the first 72 hours of a major disaster and for two weeks after a major earthquake. The Red Cross also emphasizes that people must be prepared to sustain themselves for at least three days in a major disaster. After a disaster comes recovery, which is actually an outcome of preparation. (For information about the recovery process, see Exhibit B.)



The County Administrator is ultimately responsible for decisions concerning disasters including opening the Emergency Operations Center (EOC) located in the basement of the Santa Barbara County Jail at 4436 Calle Real in Santa Barbara. The County Administrator legally declares any local state of emergency.

Functioning as part of the Fire Department, the OES is the lead agency for the Santa Barbara County Operational Area, which includes the county, all incorporated cities, and special districts. The OES is responsible for:

Currently the OES is trying to fund and construct a new EOC. The facility was built in 1968 prior to seismic revisions to the county building code; it could suffer damage in a major earthquake. When the OES opened the command center during the 1995 January flood, it found that pagers, cellular phones and radios did not work in the basement location; setting up critical equipment took too much time; and wall space for maps was inadequate. During the March flood, the OES did not open the EOC but operated out of its own offices at 4410 Cathedral Oaks Boulevard in Santa Barbara. An architect, volunteering his services, is reporting on the seismic effects if a loft is built in the recently-closed Fire Station 19 near the OES offices. The OES would like a command center that also could be used in non-emergency situations for computer resource training, SEMS training and other activities.

Staffing and Funding

Before September, 1994 the cities in Santa Barbara County paid the OES to provide planning and training services for them. After September, 1994 the cities ceased their funding.

The County Administrator appointed a new OES Director in December, 1994. Under this new direction, the current OES is trying to update and streamline operations and systems as departments develop their standing operating procedures and work within a much smaller budget.

In 1989-90, the annual EOS budget was $1,847,517, with a county net cost of $238,408. By 1994-95, when the budget was transferred to the Fire Department, the budget had been cut to $520,261, with county net cost of $39,269. After the cities ceased their funding and ended the Joint Powers Agreement, the OES still had responsibilities for county planning and coordination. Yet the county funds to support that effort have been drastically reduced. Also, in this reorganization the staff was cut in half, from twelve to six full time employees.

Federal funds will be reduced in October, 1996 when the state distributes these funds on a new basis. Baseline will be $30,000 and, to distribute these federal funds more equally, the state will allot $.08 per capita for each county. The advantage of federal funds is that they go to all risk areas. Revenues from the oil, gas and nuclear power industries can be used only for industry-related disaster planning.

To counterbalance further staff reduction, the OES is working with the County Administrator to incorporate certain responsibilities for disaster preparedness, such as department training, into the job descriptions of county department employees.

In 1993, California citizens passed Proposition 172, a 1/2 cent sales tax to be returned to local governments for public safety. Proposition 172 attempted to offset Proposition 13 tax revenues that the state took away from local governments. In 1994-95, the county received $16 million; in 1995-96, $16,700,000; and the projection for 1996-97 is $17,200,000. These revenues currently go into the county general fund and are then disbursed to public safety entities.

Discussions are currently underway to specify the distribution of these funds under Proposition 172 Guidelines which mandate Maintenance of Effort (MOE) accountings based on the 1992-93 budget. In 1992-93, the county OES received monies from the county general fund and therefore should be included in the distribution of Proposition 172 funds.


Each city in the county has its own emergency plan and, to a greater or lesser extent, trains and plans drills for its area. Each city has three communication links (law, fire and general management) with OES, so that when there is an emergency, a systematic transfer of information will occur.

The County Administrator chairs quarterly meetings of the Emergency Services Council composed of county OES officials with administrators/managers from Buellton, Carpinteria, Guadalupe, Lompoc, Santa Barbara, Santa Maria and Solvang. The Deputy Director of the county OES chairs monthly meetings of Emergency Services Coordinators from the cities.


The county OES oversees preparedness for disasters in the unincorporated areas. However, in some of these areas citizens have formed self-help groups in order to ensure local planning for and response to emergencies. The most established of these is the Montecito Emergency Response and Recovery Action Group, MERRAG.4

In 1987, the Montecito fire, water, and sanitary districts formed this self-help organization to respond to community needs during the critical first 72 hours of a disaster. MERRAG is prepared to establish communications, react to life threatening situations and property damage, coordinate with the county OES and organize local resources.

Since 1987, the original program has expanded to include homeowners' associations, schools and Westmont College, churches, businesses and the Red Cross. Training classes are offered and procedures for obtaining disaster relief have been initiated. Montecito residents recognize their unincorporated area could become isolated during a major disaster. They are prepared to respond to emergencies with their own VHF radio frequency, two-way personal radios, generators, water storage vehicles, a field communications van, and a satellite communications system.

Emergency Medical Services

Santa Barbara County's medical organizations are well-trained and ready to meet a wide range of emergency situations but cannot meet the overwhelming demands from a major earthquake.

Paramedics, fire fighters and ambulance crews are the first responders to calls for help and are prepared to provide immediate life-saving treatment. If critical needs require larger health resources, they quickly alert the Emergency Medical Services (EMS) Division of the Health Care Services Department. EMS coordinates with the EOC to establish central communications and simultaneously contacts any of the seven county hospitals linked together on the MED-NET microwave network.

In the field, medical command posts can be set up at the site of the disaster or in open areas at the nearest hospital. These locations would become casualty collection points with equipment and staff. Patients could get emergency treatment and all available beds could be prepared to meet the needs of those injured. Meanwhile, up-to-the-minute communications would flow in and out of the EMS, the EOC and the hospitals to match medical resources with needs. A double back-up is available if MED-NET fails: first, cellular phone networks and, then, amateur radio operators.

Fire Districts, Fire Departments and Law Enforcement

For most emergencies the county fire districts and city fire departments become Situation Unit Leaders, and the various fire stations become District Operation Commands.

When a disaster relates to law enforcement, such as a civil disturbance, the Sheriff's Office becomes the Situation Unit Leader. Law enforcement also oversees both the coroner's duties and evacuations in all disasters.

Recently the Sheriff's Department obtained a Bell helicopter from U. S. Government Surplus. The county has designated funds to bring the helicopter up to standards for patrol work. Although this helicopter is too small to be used effectively in disaster situations, the Sheriff's Department is working with government surplus to obtain a larger helicopter that could be used for ambulance and fire fighting services.

County Departments

Most county departments are trained for action in disasters. The county OES is the pivotal agency and high on the list are the Fire and Sheriff's Departments and Health Care Services. The Public Works Department has trained inspectors ready to monitor county roads for damage and blockage. The Flood Control Division of Public Works is responsible for matters pertaining to floods. The Building Safety Division of the Planning and Development Department has trained inspectors ready to assess damage to all county and private buildings. The General Services Department is ready to assist with the acquisition of needed resources and the Auditor/Controller's office systematizes costs for staff overtime, FEMA reimbursement and other expenditures. The County Counsel is alert to legal considerations during disasters. The ultimate responsibility for all disasters rests with the County Administrator. A person from this office is designated to be the Public Information Officer (PIO) in an emergency.

Red Cross

The American Red Cross is the only private organization recognized by the federal government to provide shelter and feeding to people during a disaster. On the state and county levels, the Red Cross is the lead agency for this type of assistance. If the EOC opens, the Santa Barbara Chapter of the American Red Cross will have a representative there. The chapter trains its staff in SEMS operations, to be consistent with the county and city OES operations.5 The Red Cross gives extensive training classes for the public in emergency preparedness and response. It also becomes the liaison to a network of not- for-profit organizations, such as the Volunteer Organizations Active in Disaster (VOAD) which endeavors to meet specific needs of individuals countywide.

Community Awareness Emergency Response (CAER)

This group was organized in 1991 as a cooperative effort to bring together private industries and public government agencies to address public safety and emergency response with emphasis on hazardous material situations. CAER sponsors monthly meetings, plans periodic special training workshops and offers public education programs. A mutual aid plan is in effect to foster cooperation between neighboring industries. CAER links to the county OES through a shared radio frequency.

Public Buildings

State and federal public safety laws and fire regulations govern emergency planning for public buildings such as schools, hospitals, nursing homes, theaters, train stations, airports, and other "high life hazard" occupancies. In an emergency, the fire department would usually be the first to respond and the incident commander would request additional resources for containment.

Private Residences

Homes of citizens are not protected by the same federal, state or local laws that apply to government and public buildings. Therefore, people often are less aware of the need for disaster preparedness and may not have focused on how they would respond individually in an emergency. This emphasizes the importance for individuals to prepare to take care of themselves in the first 72 hours of a crisis.


The Grand Jury observed several reassuring examples of special disaster preparedness precautions specific to Santa Barbara County.

Bradbury Dam

The Bradbury Dam could suffer catastrophic structural damage if a major earthquake should occur in its vicinity. When the U. S. Department of the Interior evaluated all dams under its jurisdiction, the review of the Bradbury Dam disclosed deficiencies.

The alluvial earth at the front of the dam was water saturated. In 1995, to alleviate this condition, 17 pumps were installed after holes were drilled down to the bedrock. The removal of this water should prevent liquefaction and instability that can result from an earthquake. This safety project was completed, but further work is needed and will not be completed until late 1999.

When it was first announced that seismic dam failure was a possibility before repairs were completed, the county OES distributed safety brochures throughout the Santa Ynez Valley, including Lompoc, Solvang and Buellton. The possibility of a major earthquake is rare and thus the risk of a catastrophic dam break is also minimal. The City of Lompoc has plotted those areas of the city that would be impacted by flood waters and has installed warning sirens, designated evacuation routes, and held simulated drills.

Los Padres National Forest

This federal preserve occupies 44% of the total land area in Santa Barbara County. The greatest disaster threat is wildfire, which could spread rapidly with prevailing northern and westerly winds. Federal, county and local fire companies are well-organized with mutual aid programs to detect and contain fire emergencies year-round, but a part of the forest is inaccessible.

Vandenberg Air Force Base

Spread over 153 square miles of land along the county's western perimeter, Vandenberg faces unique situations with high potential for disaster. These include fire and explosion hazards from space vehicles on the launching pad and airborne. Vandenberg, Lompoc and the county OES have developed special preparedness measures and capable response programs which coordinate mutual aid facilities to minimize risk and protect property.

Coastal Oil Spills

Oil spills could happen in Santa Barbara County because of offshore oil platform drilling, underwater and onshore oil lines, and oil tanker transportation within the Santa Barbara Channel. While limited as a hazard to human life, a major oil spill within the channel could be an ecological disaster. Winds and water currents could deposit the leaking oil onto the beaches of not only the mainland but also the Channel Islands.

Local authorities, including the Santa Barbara Harbor Patrol, are prepared to prevent such a spill from entering the harbor. The main focus on the waters outside the harbor falls to the oil companies and to the U. S. Coast Guard. Currently, a containment ship is on standby in case of spills.

Hazardous/Toxic Waste Materials

Funded mostly by the industries served, the staff of the Hazardous Materials Office oversees the use, transport and storage of potentially hazardous materials. Recently transferred to the Fire Department, these employees are on call to respond to emergencies.

Also, during emergencies the health staff in the Hazardous Materials Office advises the EOC on matters of water, sewage, food, shelter and mass housing.

Vehicles transporting toxic materials to Vandenberg Air Force Base have designated routes and times to travel through the county.

Santa Barbara County is criss-crossed with oil and gas lines, most of which have been in place for many years without incident. One newer concern is the 17-mile gas transmission pipeline in the Gaviota area which contains high levels of potentially lethal hydrogen sulfide. This line runs from offshore rigs at Point Arguello eastward across rural areas, through Gaviota State Park, and under Highway 101 to the Chevron processing plant at Gaviota. An earthquake could rupture the line, possibly causing explosions and fires that could generate toxic clouds and threaten lives. Chevron monitors the gas flow hazard offshore to its plant with a sophisticated, automated telemetry shut-down and warning system.


FINDING 1: Introduced in 1993, California's Standardized Emergency Management System (SEMS) is now being integrated into the governmental structure of Santa Barbara County and its cities.

FINDING 2: The 1994 restructuring of the county Office of Emergency Services (OES) reduced the staff by 50%. From the 1989-90 budget to the reorganization in 1994 and termination of the Joint Powers Agreement, the OES budget dropped 72%. Also, there was an 84% decrease in the net contribution from the county. These reductions have left the OES understaffed and lacking adequate resources to be effective in an overwhelming disaster.

RECOMMENDATION 2a: The Board of Supervisors should increase the OES staff by at least one qualified generalist to plan and establish a broader training program for hundreds more employees each year.

RECOMMENDATION 2b: The Board of Supervisors should provide emergency funding for Recommendation 2a in the 1996-97 budget.

RECOMMENDATION 2c: The Board of Supervisors and the County Administrator should include the county OES in the distribution of revenues from Proposition 172.

FINDING 3: The county's Emergency Operations Center (EOC) is constructed inadequately to withstand major disasters.

RECOMMENDATION 3: The Board of Supervisors should accelerate and approve planning and funding for a much-needed improved structure to replace the inadequate EOC.

FINDING 4: Emergency planning is essential for the cities in the county. The City of Santa Barbara has a well established emergency preparedness program. The City of Lompoc has developed a detailed program of response and evacuation if Bradbury Dam were to fail.

FINDING 5: The Montecito Emergency Response and Recovery Action Group (MERRAG) offers a good model for providing community emergency services in the unincorporated areas of the county.

RECOMMENDATION 5a: Because MERRAG has nearly nine years of time- tested experience as a community action organization, residents and organizations in other unincorporated areas should follow its model in which homeowners' associations, churches, schools and special districts meet and work together for the common good.

RECOMMENDATION 5b: With additional staff, the county OES should be aware of all the community service organizations and act as an overseer to consolidate overlapping services assuring the most efficient and effective services to meet citizen needs.

FINDING 6: Santa Barbara County needs its own helicopter for emergencies in times of disasters.

RECOMMENDATION 6: The Sheriff's Department should continue to try to obtain from government surplus a larger helicopter that could be used jointly with the County Fire Department for rescue, fire and ambulance service throughout the county.

FINDING 7: In the event of a disaster, emergency officials and citizens should assume that all usual means of residential communication (televisions, radios, fax machines, computers and telephones) will not work because power and utility lines will be down. Radio and television stations have auxiliary sources of power.

RECOMMENDATION 7: In advance of any disaster, institutions and individuals should establish alternate means of communicating by using battery-powered radios, cellular telephones, amateur radios, and/or private radio frequencies.

FINDING 8: The county's institutional owners (schools, hospitals, public buildings, airports and harbors) are highly sensitive to safety requirements mandated by law, but the residential areas are much less aware of the need for disaster preparedness.

RECOMMENDATION 8a: It is critical that the county's residents should be continually encouraged by the media and public service organizations to become more aware and involved in personal preparation and protection in case of disaster.

RECOMMENDATION 8b: In a disaster, residents should be prepared to help themselves and their immediate neighbors with supplies of water, food, clothes, medicine and battery powered radios for at least the first 72 hours.

RECOMMENDATION 8c: In times of crisis, the county's citizens should recognize that the Red Cross is the best-established secondary contact point for all citizens to find food, shelter and medical care if none is available in their own neighborhoods.

AFFECTED AGENCIES (California Penal Code Section 933c requires that comments to Findings and Recommendations be made in writing within 60 days by all affected agencies except governing bodies, which are allowed 90 days. The Grand Jury requires that all responses be supplied in both a printed version and on a computer disk.):