Do we have to have an emergency management department? Read on… this should scare you.
That’s what Josephine County Commission Chair Herman Baertschiger asked when Commissioners learned their Emergency Management Director had resigned, effective mid-April.
Scofield appeared before the Board’s March 23 Administrative Workshop to let them know Ring had handed in her resignation as well as Community Corrections Director Nate Gaoiran and IT Manager John McCafferty. Scofield wanted to know if he should advertise for the positions or if they know of in-house promotions that might fill those vacancies. In Gaoiran’s case his deputy, Scott Hyde is primed to take over, Scofield said. DeYoung, who is liaison for that department, vouched for Hyde. Scofield said there weren’t any replacements prepared for the other two department heads. McCafferty is leaving in June, he said.
The Emergency Manager position generated the most discussion, however. Replying to Baertschiger’s question Scofield said Human Resources Director JJ Scofield said every county has an emergency department. Commissioner Dan DeYoung said “everything’s an emergency now, so yes, we do have to have an emergency department.”
Baertschiger said he didn’t think counties had emergency managers until the ‘90s. Before that, “the sheriff would do that and, you know, we had search and rescue and the sheriff would go in.”
Scofield argued that, from his perspective, an emergency manager is “incredibly valuable.”
“What do you define as incredibly valuable?” asked Baertschiger.
“To me it isn’t necessarily what you do while the trees are burning, it is what you do leading up to an emergency event so that there is effective coordination of the various different agencies,” Scofield said.
During several crises in Josephine County during the past few years Emergency Management Director, Emily Ring has been there to coordinate emergency declarations and plan for future ones. At one point the county had three emergency declarations going at once: COVID, fire and drought. At each declaration, Commissioner Dan DeYoung complained about ceding Board power to another agency.
However, the Board had no qualms about declaring an emergency when COVID vaccines were mandated by then Gov. Kate Brown. They had county Counsel Wally Hicks write up a declaration in anticipation of what they thought would be a mass exodus of essential workers who refused to get the vaccination even though there were exceptions to the mandate for religious or health reasons. The mass exodus never happened and neither did the declaration.
In anticipation of future emergencies, Ring used ARPA money to finance a detailed plan for escape routes during fires and floods and plans for other emergencies such as power and water shutoffs through software provided by ZoneHaven. When she outlined the conditions where generators would not be allowed to be used, DeYoung blew up at her, saying she couldn’t tell people in a power outage not to use generators. She said an improperly installed generator could be a fire hazard, then went on to explain the safe use of a generator during fire season. Also using grant money, Ring got a team from the Northwest Youth Corp to help clear brush and weeds in parks and for people who could not afford or were not able to do their own clearing. Commissioners mumbled about taking jobs away from local people during her presentation but she assured them they were targeting places often missed. Ring helped get the word out about the Firewise program that helps people make their property more likely to survive a fire. During their various declarations of emergency in order to get help from the state for COVID, drought, fire and illegal cannabis grows, Commissioners groused about having their power ripped away even though County Counsel Wally Hicks told them the board doesn’t surrender authority but “assigns” it to those staff members with more expertise then they have to deal with an emergency situation and they can rescind that authority at any time.
Public Health Director Michael Weber recently pointed out to the Board they can write an emergency declaration in such a way that they don’t give up any power but that didn’t convince Commissioners to declare an emergency in order to get state funding being allocated to help deal with homelessness in Josephine County. Commissioners all complained about declaring the homeless emergency after Ring explained to them what was available from the state and what they had to do to get it. DeYoung erroneously claimed the cities of Cave Junction and Grants Pass could get the money by declaring their own emergencies. Not long after that fiasco, Ring resigned.
Baertschiger pointed out that the county’s Emergency Management Department is totally funded by the state and “if the state doesn’t have any money are we still going to have emergency management or does that just go away?” DeYoung said that may happen someday but as long as the state continues the funding they should maintain their Emergency Management Department.
“But Dan, Emergency Management doesn’t handle wildland fires,” said Baertschiger. He said as soon as a wildland fire gets too big for the county to handle they turn it over to a “team….and so I’m just always puzzled where this emergency manager plays into it because it used to be the same if we have a flood we hand it off so I don’t even know what this emergency management position if you follow what I mean.”
Scofield said, “it isn’t necessarily what you do while the trees are burning, it’s what you do leading up to an emergency event so there is effective coordination of the various different agencies. What do we have in place to continue operations if something happens?.” Scofield used as an example when the sheriff has to go out and close roads during a fire or flood. People need to know where the alternative routes are and the Emergency Manager has that planned out, he said.
Baertschiger blamed the creation of emergency departments on “Cascadia, the big earthquake that’s coming so all of a sudden emergency management is started and it’s like a business.”
Both Baertschiger and Commissioner John West used their fire expertise to counter the need for emergency management during wildland fires. West said “Emily had nothin to do with shutting roads down. We have a fire management team.” According to West the fire management team takes over and decides what areas need to be rerouted. Not to be outdone, Baertschiger weighed in, pointing out that he’s a “Type 3 incident manager” and said when the county hands the “torch” over it’s not to the county’s Emergency Management Department.
DeYoung said when someone calls him at 2 a.m. to report an emergency he likes it to be the Emergency Manager because she has fielded all the information through one source. He said during an emergency you need someone you can go to for information and “as long as the state money holds out I don’t see it as a problem here.” DeYoung said the state of Oregon is “very big into emergency management because that’s where they get their money, they get it from the feds.”
Baertschiger said it’s still possible that the state funding could disappear and if they agree to replace Emily Ring the next person should be told their job depends on state funding that could go away.
“We’ll have that discussion if the funding goes away,” said DeYoung, who added he sees value in having an Emergency Director “cause I’m not fire savvy. Politicians usually aren’t. It’s a rare breed that you two are both wildland firefighters (referring to West and Baertschiger) and you’re sitting in this chair but it’s not always going to be that way so if we take it away now you cripple the next guy.”
Baertschiger said he was just asking questions and wanted to bring it to everyone’s attention that the county didn’t always have an emergency manager, that it was brought about by Cascadia and that if the money from the state goes away the program will go away.
“Yes you brought that to our attention,” said DeYoung.
Commissioners gave Scofield the permission to advertise for the emergency management and IT positions because there isn’t anyone waiting in the wings for those jobs.