UPDATE: After losing grant, city makes new disaster prep hires

UPDATE: After losing grant, city makes new disaster prep hires

Michele Ellson

City officials are recommending the City Council approve a permanent civilian staffer to create and execute plans to help Alameda bounce back quickly from a range of disasters – the third position the city is creating to better prepare it for disasters.

The proposal comes roughly a year after the city lost a lucrative grant that could have helped fund a chief resilience officer who would have served as a high-level point person who would work with a broad array of stakeholders to identify and address resilience challenges.

Assistant City Manager Alex Nguyen denied the proposed disaster emergency services coordinator would carry out the same tasks as the chief resiliency officer the city had hoped to fund with a Rockefeller Foundation grant the city won in December 2013 but lost a few months later.

“This is not an about face. It’s the progression of how we need to form the core team at City Hall to get the job done,” said Nguyen, who characterized the grant as an opportunity “that unfortunately did not work out.”

City officials spurned the grant, which would have fully funded a similar position for two years, saying the job should go to a fire department manager instead of a civilian employee in the city manager’s office. Executives with Rockefeller’s 100 Resilient Cities initiative said they wanted their money to fund a staffer who could engage a broad cross-section of the community and come up with a comprehensive plan to help Alameda recover quickly from disaster.

Initiative executives also expressed concern that the city hadn’t committed to retaining the position they offered to fund – a chief resiliency officer – for more than the two years the nonprofit agreed to pay for it, e-mails obtained by The Alamedan through a public records request showed. And the city asked for far more money – $647,171 originally, an amount that included $200,000 to cover pension and health benefits and $56,000 in special pay – than at least one neighboring city, San Francisco, ultimately received.

City officials are now saying that the council should hire a permanent civilian staffer to work out of the city manager’s office who can work with city, business and community leaders to craft a resiliency plan and coordinate training and also, execution of the plan if disaster strikes.

“Alameda will have its best chance at resiliency if City Hall and the community prioritize and sustain an ongoing effort to plan, fund, implement, train, practice, and update annually. In plain words: it cannot work if it's just a plan or a project; resiliency needs to be an ongoing program,” Nguyen wrote in a report to the council, which will discuss the proposed position at its meeting Tuesday.

If approved by the council, Nguyen said the new position would pay between $64,000 and $78,000 a year – a few thousands dollars more than the amount listed in a job ad for a community development and resiliency coordinator posted late last year. He said the new emergency services coordinator would work with Jim Franz, who was recently named the city's resiliency coordinator, and Alameda Fire Department Capt. Sharon Oliver, the department’s disaster preparedness coordinator.

The initiative’s top executive, Michael Berkowitz, spelled out what it thought a chief resiliency officer should do in this recent blog post.

Alameda was one of 33 cities around the globe and four in the Bay Area to be selected in December 2013 to join the inaugural class of the 100 Resilient Cities initiative, which has $100 million to help 100 cities become better prepared to withstand shocks and stresses that include natural and economic disasters, food and water shortages, violence and even insufficient public transit.

But negotiations over who would fill the role fell apart the following March, when the city demanded the initiative approve a candidate with a public safety background – Deputy Chief Rick Zombeck – at an amount that was more than the initiative’s executives wanted to pay, e-mails obtained by The Alamedan showed.

“The (chief resiliency officer) model proposed by Alameda raises concerns around salary; the long-term sustainability of resilience as a practice; and the placement of the CRO within the Fire Department with a dotted line to the Mayor,” 100 Resilient Cities’ chief operating officer, Andrew Salkin, wrote Nguyen on March 10.

Nguyen, whose staff was scrambling to address potential job openings that would be created if Zombeck took the chief resiliency officer position, balked at negotiating further with initiative executives. Then-Fire Chief Mike D’Orazi also had his hands full with a second project: a community paramedicine pilot project, which is set to launch in June.

“At this point, we need to know if you will fund the position that we propose. If yes, we'll be all-in next week,” Nguyen, who told The Alamedan the city didn’t want a policy person to fill the role but were instead seeking a grassroots organizer, wrote in a March 11 e-mail to Salkin the following day. “If not, 100RC will move on without Alameda.”

After losing the grant, city officials vowed to press forward with their efforts to make Alameda more resilient should disaster strike. The fire department had already restarted its disaster preparedness program, and the city planned a luncheon to discuss efforts to make Alameda more resilient in May 2014, a month and a half after announcing the city had lost the grant.

In his report to the council, Nguyen wrote that the city hopes to initiate planning efforts this spring and conduct community and staff training over the summer, fall and winter; implementation and updates would be made in April 2016. As part of the process, the city will update a hazard and risk assessment the federal government requires before it will provide aid in the wake of a disaster.

The report also says the city will use its to-be-built emergency operations center as a year-round training center for resiliency efforts. The city has been criticized for moving forward with the multi-million-dollar facility, which was slated to be occupied by a single fire department employee and used only for occasional training and in case of emergency.

“The new facility will serve two primary functions. One, it will be the Emergency Operations Center, the headquarters, for disaster response. Two, it will serve as the City's resiliency training center year-round,” wrote Nguyen, who dubbed the new facility an emergency operations center and city resiliency training center.

Related: SPECIAL REPORT: How the grant was lost


Submitted by Daqcarvious (not verified) on Fri, Apr 17, 2015

Total waste of money.

Submitted by Sarah! (not verified) on Tue, Apr 21, 2015

Wow, so if I am reading between the lines correctly. The city got a grant to help prepare us for the inevitable disaster for which we are woefully unprepared, but the firefighters insisted the position be in their department, which requires a salary and benefits that the funders were unwilling to pay, and an administrative structure (dotted line to the mayor) that the grantees thought illogical, and so Alameda lost the grant that would help us prepare. So the territoriality of and smallmindness of the firefighters strike again. Is that right, Michelle?

Submitted by Michele Ellson on Tue, Apr 21, 2015

Hi Sarah: To be completely fair, I don't know that I could say that based on the e-mails I have. Here's what I can say: The grant opportunity was spotted by someone else from a different department; AFD staff assisted in its preparation (as did staffers from other departments). I'm not really sure how the decision to select someone from fire vs a civilian employee was made. Things seemed to get bobbled up when the city began pushing for a fire manager to take the job (instead of a civilian employee) at a much higher cost than 100RC wished to pay, and they pushed hard due to internal staffing issues (the seniority list they were working off of to backfill the openings that would be created by the move was running out sooner than anticipated). But I would say the city manager's office led the charge on that, and not AFD (in fact, the fire department's former chief was at one point prepared to walk away - he was focused on trying to get a separate project off the ground, the e-mails show).

So in short, I think the e-mails do show that the city got the grant, that the funders wanted someone with different skills in the job, and for less money, and this breakdown led to the loss of the grant. I don't know that they do show that fire pushed for the job - that may be true, may be partially true, or the decision may have been made by someone else.