Kimberly Saruwatari, director of the the Riverside County Emergency Management Department, was the featured speaker at the Mountain Emergency Service Committee meeting last Thursday at the library. She discussed the agency’s creation, its need and its goals over the next few years.
In early 2014, County Executive Officer Jay Orr created a task force to assess how the county handles emergency situations, particularly large-scale incidents. After a year, Orr presented a report to the board of supervisors and his recommendation to establish one department for emergency management.
In May 2015, the board combined two public health agencies — the Emergency Preparedness and Response Branch, and the Emergency Medical Services Agency — with the Office of Emergency Services from the county Fire Department into a single comprehensive emergency management organization, which reports directly to Orr.
The overriding goal is to oversee the county’s preparedness, response, mitigation and recovery to all hazardous incidents.
While all three agencies were responsible for different aspects of emergency situations, they each had different constituencies. For example, OES worked mostly with local governments, special districts and tribal entities, as well as first responders to emergencies. The two public organizations had more interaction with hospitals, EMS providers, community clients and medical personnel.
“Merging these two cultures into one was one of the bigger challenges as the department started up,” Saruwatari said. So the early steps were a “challenge to the old ways.”
Over time, one shift has been increasing the efforts on recovery after a situation is mitigated or over. Also, the new department is developing an information center to collect and disseminate information about situations more effectively. Both of these goals will depend upon her efforts to improve “our ability to conduct damage assessments.”
Another important goal is greater interaction with volunteers, including offering more training opportunities. Several non-public organizations, such as Radio Amateur Civil Emergency Services, Community Emergency Response Teams, medical reserves and others are a vital component of the emergency response, according to Saruwatari. So she wants to improve the response and strengthen the relationships. A possible training academy may be in the future.
When discussing the role of volunteers and their contribution, she noted, “Idyllwild is the exception. You are extremely very good using volunteers and to get them more engaged and active. We plan to use what you do on the mountain.”
She also stressed that the county’s commitment to the EMS Strategy Plan was not diminished with the inclusion of the EMS program in the new department. “We support all the priority 1 actions and will work to achieve them [over the next several years],” she added.
To achieve these goals will be a major challenge, she agreed. “The diversity of the county from the mountains to the desert and its east and west breadth is enormous,” she said.