"Newsmaker of the Week" is presented by the SCV Press Club and Comcast, and hosted by Signal City Editor Leon Worden. The program premieres every Wednesday at 9:30 p.m. on SCVTV Channel 20, repeating Sundays at 8:30 a.m.
This week's newsmaker is Adele Macpherson, the city of Santa Clarita's commuity services superintendent. The following interview was conducted July 21. Questions are paraphrased and some answers may be abbreviated for length.
Signal: It has been a busy week for you with all the fires. One of the hats you wear is as the emergency services manager for the city.
Macpherson: Yes, I'm emergency services manager for city, and aided by Donna Nuzzi, who is the emergency services coordinator.
Signal: People see firefighters but don't necessarily know what goes on behind the scenes. What is the city's role in a fire?
Macpherson: The city's role in any disaster is really predetermined. We have a plan where we know how we are to coordinate with other agencies. It depends on the incident. It depends on who the lead agency is.
Let's take, for example, the fire. This fire was basically in the forest area, so the (U.S.) Forest Service was the lead agency along with L.A. County Fire, and then you also have the Sheriff, Highway Patrol, Animal Control. All of them have a predetermined role in the plan that everyone works under, together. But the city's role because we are not the ones that, obviously, go out and put out the fires is more of a support role. So Public Works Field Services help the sheriffs with their evacuations and their road closures by doing the cones and traffic diversions things like that.
The role for the emergency management group is to coordinate any other roles for the activities to be intelligence for outside agencies. For example, I was in the command post on Sunday when it was down in Newhall Park so I could provide local knowledge to the people who were doing the operations, who were actually from out of town, because they don't use local people. They usually bring people from outside in teams. So I can provide local knowledge. I could also, then I knew who to call, like KHTS, and who to contact to get the information out to the community. So that is sort of the role that Donna and I play.
Public safety ... is our major mission so the city manager is our director of emergency services. He is the one who is the policy maker, who tells us what to do. So a big part of that, especially in a fire like this, is public information getting the information out to residents so they can take whatever measures they need to take.
Signal: So if the city isn't the overall coordinating agency, is there one?
Macpherson: Yes there is, and that would depend on the incident. In this one, I believe it was joint operation between L.A. County Fire and the Forest Service.
Signal: So the Forest Service and L.A. County Fire give the city instructions?
Macpherson: No. No, they do their own operations where they have their command post. And at that place, according to that plan again, they have designated jobs for everyone. So they would have strike teams that go out and do the operations. They would have a team that (does) the plans for the next day. They would have a team that would work on safety, they would have a team that would just work on paramedics, they would have a team on structure protection, a team that would work on cleaning up, a team that would work on hot spots. So all of those teams could be multiple agencies or different agencies.
The neat thing in California remember in Oakland, when there were those horrific fires years ago? Well, that made everyone realize that the fire fighters and all the responders were there on scene, but they didn't all speak the same language. That was one of the reasons why it was very difficult to get in and out ... the roads were very small. At that point, California started developing SEMS, which stands for Standardized Emergency Management System. That system has been adopted and mandated statewide since 1996 (for) every agency, whether it is city, county, fire, police, all the different types of agencies. We all have the same plan, the same system, and we all speak the same language. It has proven to be extremely effective. One of the main components is that the coordination of the event, where instead of having fire coordinate their operations in one place and the sheriff somewhere else, it's (all done at) the central command (post), so everyone is one place. They talk twice a day, at least. That is where they have their briefings. And all the trailers or tents or whatever they are working out of are in one location, so if they had a question they could go to the other agency and find the answer.
It really is a model, and in fact the federal government has just come out with their emergency management system. They have just rewritten the federal plan based on Homeland Security, and ... in Southern California we were a little bit concerned for a while would the system be the same as what we have, or would we have to redo our system? We are very proud and very comfortable with the way it's working in California. Fortunately, they did come out with a system that means our Standard Emergency Management System fits right in with the federal, and is based on incident command, which is the fire system and sheriff.
Signal: The Foothill Fire crossed jurisdictional boundaries between the city and the unincorporated county area. Does the county have a function similar to what you do in an incident like this?
Macpherson: No, not in this particular incident, because County Fire was one of the leads. But yes, the county does have an Office of Emergency Management. Actually, they are the operational area for the whole of L.A. County, which means the way the system works the SEMS system is, we are the local jurisdiction; the next person they report to is the operation area, (which) in our case happens to be L.A. County, and then it goes on to the state and on to the federal government. So yes, the county does have a similar system, but it is much bigger for a small jurisdiction like we are. When the disaster crosses boundaries, the boundaries disappear.
Signal: Who is responsible for getting out the official word to the public on evacuations and road closures? With so many agencies involved, it seems that different people were telling the public different things last weekend.
Macpherson: Yeah. A disaster is so fluid. Especially a fire it changes minute by minute. It really is difficult for the information to seem as if is consistent because it seems to be conflicting. But what really happens, and what is supposed to happen in the true world and the plan, is that there is a public information officer. And in this incident, the lead public information (agency) was L.A. County Fire. But there was also one from the Forest Service. They work together as a team, so they are the ones who officially put out the reports to the news stations and the big media. They get their reports of operations as to what the containment is, how many people were (working) on the fire, all that technical knowledge. That's their call. Operations are the ones who also decide what roads are going to be closed. So Fire will say, OK, this is an area we need to protect, and CHP and Sheriff will decide on road closures. When I was calling in to KHTS, the information that I was sharing was the information from law enforcement on the evacuations and the road closures. That was what was being told to the troops out there "This is what we are going do, we are going to close the roads." But as you know, when you are on the scene, the translation isn't always the same.
Signal: How are the official decisions on evacuations communicated to the various troops in the field?
Macpherson: Well, the word about evacuation is actually sent to CHP and Sheriff, because they are the ones who control the evacuations. So the fire fighters on the line who are doing structure protection will not hear whether or not evacuation is mandatory or voluntary until probably quite a while later. And that did cause an issue quite a few times. Because obviously, people are going to walk outside their house and talk to the closest person, who is a fireman. But he doesn't necessarily have the latest information that is coming out of the command post.
And another thing, having been in a fire I was affected in the Stevenson Ranch one at home last year, and so I know how difficult and frustrating it is and how scary it is and how often we don't really know what is really behind the decisions. We think the decisions are not logical. But we don't know the pieces of information that have gone to those people who are very, very good at what they do making the decisions that it's safer to close this street or that street for a period of time for their reasons, for everyone's safety. These are the behind-the-scenes things that we don't see. And it's a lot of people that do come together and do understand that it's so complex, fighting a fire these days, and they do such an incredible job, they really almost get the feel and I mean this seriously, because this is how they talk they know fire behavior, and having been in so many fires, they can almost predict some of the things that they think (are) going to happen because they have been in similar situations with similar terrain, similar temperatures, similar brush. So they say, "Oh this fire is to be expected tomorrow or the next day; it's going to do that." It may not, but they are very, very intelligent and very smart about their fire safety.
Signal: A lot of residents stayed home when they were in a mandatory evacuation area because they didn't feel threatened. What kind of problems does that pose? What do you tell people who don't want to leave?
Macpherson: That really is a question for the sheriff and CHP. I've never had to do that. ... I know it is very difficult, and if people choose to stay, they need their signatures to say that (it) is their own responsibility. They really do like people to leave because they have become so good at doing structure protection and then also the fire fighting operations, too that if those two groups of people have all the room and all the space that they need to protect the structure and fight the fire, they can save almost any structure. But if you put in the mix that a person who is going to get in the way it's their home, so of course you're emotionally attached to it you're not going to hide in a closet and stay out of the way when someone's fighting the fire, so in reality you're going to get in the way. That is their concern. It detracts from the job they are trying to do and, as a result, could be harmful not only to the person but to the house and the firefighters, too.
Signal: The Red Cross has its shelters, but does the city get involved in helping people find places for themselves and their pets to go?
Macpherson: No. One of the responsibilities, actually, of the (city) Parks and Recreation staff, is sheltering, and we did actually have training for sheltering last week, which was very timely. What we do in that role Red Cross, as you know, are the main shelter people, so we, as a city, support them.
For example, in the (1994) earthquake, Red Cross couldn't get here in the numbers they needed to, so city staff opened the shelter in a manner that was easy, then, to transition over to the Red Cross shelter. So we don't do the sheltering, but we do support them.
With Animal Control, L.A. County has an incredible program where they actually certify people and train them as to how to get their horses out, because to get horses out of a fire is very difficult, and you really need to know what you are doing. So there are special courses people can take. And then, a lot of communities form teams. We have had a couple of strong teams up here since I moved here in 1986, where they may not be front-page in the newspaper, but they know (where), when there is a disaster, they are going to go, and they know exactly what to do and how to get their animals out. So they are one of the unsung heroes of any fire the people who are going out and bringing out all those horses that are absolutely terrified.
Signal: Did people in rural Placerita and Sand canyons seem generally prepared ahead of time to evacuate?
Macpherson: I haven't heard that they didn't. I've heard very few reports of people who had left medicines and things like that, who had to go back home for emergency supplies. So from that point of view, I would say they were pretty educated. But for people Donna works really hard and does an incredible job at community trainings, in training people in what to do in any disaster, because the process is the same. If you are prepared for an earthquake, you are prepared for a fire, in what you need to take to evacuate. Obviously the surroundings are different, but I mean, the principles are absolutely the same.
Signal: What should people in Santa Clarita be doing to prepare for a disaster, be it an earthquake or fire or anything else?
Macpherson: That is so basic. They need to have a plan. If they are going to plan for a fire, obviously they need to check around the house and see if the house is safe for the fire, that they don't have wood stacked up around it -what we call a hazard hunt. If they (are going to) do a hazard hunt for an earthquake, they need to make sure they are covered items securely fastened to the wall, their bookcases, their mirrors, all those things. They can do a hazard hunt for each different disaster.
The basic (thing is), they need a plan. They need to know that if Joey was at school and Jimmy was at school at another place and dad was at work and mom was home and an earthquake happened, where would they meet. They need to have an out-of-state contact. ... That person then becomes like a message board, so they call him and tell him where they are. They need to have the emergency numbers with them. They need to carry them. They need to have any emergency information with them, and carry (the phone numbers) in a backpack in their car doctors and things like that. If your kid is at school, you really need understand the emergency release plan your school has. And if you know that both you and your husband are both working in the valley and there is a chance you may not get home to pick up the children, you need to make sure there is someone who is local on that pick-up card. So you need to have your papers in order so you are ready to pick them up.
You need to have water for all of you for 72 hours and it really does take 72 for outside help to come in so if you have enough food and water for 72 hours and shelter if you would need it it's like going camping. It can be a lot of fun. So if you have those things, I mean, (if) you can use resources you already have, like camping equipment, then that will do you for any type of disaster or any time you are evacuated for a fire, for a flood, (or) because you had to leave your home because it was damaged in an earthquake. It's all the same planning process.
Signal: Being told you must leave your home is stressful for adults but probably even more so for children. What can be done to make it a little easier for them?
Macpherson: I think for children, they need to take with them their favorite toys. I have heard of some families, their children put together a backpack and they know that is the backpack they would take when they know they have to evacuate. They keep it in a special place and they are comfortable with it. ... They can actually drill it and practice it and then they take their own favorite toy.
Coloring therapy is always great for kids once you get out. (You should) talk to them, and talk honestly and listen to them and have them draw pictures, and they often can reveal a lot more in their pictures, and then you can again start talking to them. Because to talk to them and to bring in all their concerns and fears into the open is what will help. And there are always professionals around to help.
Red Cross has mental health debriefers in every disaster who will go and help people. Even the smallest disaster can be the straw for somebody. So they have mental health counselors who are at all their shelters, and of course we have local mental health agencies in town that, in a bigger disaster, come in and do mental health crisis counseling.
Signal: There have been reports of Magic Mountain and other populated areas as terrorist targets. How did Santa Clarita's emergency management system change after 9-11?
Macpherson: It actually started to change before 9-11. Weapons of mass destruction, gas, those types of weapons we had been training in those for a few years. The exercises had all been built around that. After Sept. 11, the difference now is that there has been more money made available since the Homeland Security Department was formed and the grants came and money has been available, not only to response agencies, which they really needed you know, fire and sheriffs, because they are the first ones on the scene. But even jurisdictions (like) ourselves, we have had money made available for us. Which is great. We could really use it, and we hope to get more because we definitely have a lot more need for things that we would like to do.
Communication is always an issue with us and the community because of the shape of the valley and because of our traffic issues. Because no matter what happens, we have traffic issues. We know that. It's difficult to communicate across the valley, or communicate with the residents who are trying to come home. So we would like some new systems to help with that.
Signal: How long have you been with the city?
Macpherson: You know, I was thinking about that today. I believe it was 15 years in August.
Signal: Have you been in the emergency services management area all that time?
Macpherson: Yes. Actually when I came to Santa Clarita in 1987, I was with the American Red Cross. I went from the American Red Cross to the city as the emergency (services) coordinator. And then we formed the Community Services Division that (still has) the emergency management responsibility. It's been great.
Signal: Explain your accent. Where are you from?
Macpherson: I'm from England, northern England, near Manchester. Thirty-five years ago my husband and I left. But he's a Scot. I think once you learn the vowels that way, they always sort of stay that way. I guess that is my theory.
Signal: Why Santa Clarita?
Macpherson: We were in Washington state, and my husband was offered a job in Burbank, and we wanted to move (to) a community similar to what we had in Washington. (His work) had a relocation consultant who took us to see La Canada, Glendale, La Crescenta, and then brought us up to Santa Clarita, and we went, "This feels good. We like the feel of this." So we came back the next day to make sure it still felt the same way, like a place we really wanted to live. The relocation people had done the background on the schools based on our priority: schools, driving distance, safety. This felt like home right away. So that is why we moved to Santa Clarita.
Signal: Professionally, you have attained some leadership positions in the emergency management field.
Macpherson: Yes, I am currently the past president of the state organization of the California Emergency Services Association. And I'm past president of the Southern Chapter of the California Emergency Services Association. It has been a great honor to serve at both organizations. They're wonderful people in the field of emergency management, and I really enjoyed doing that.
Signal: You're also involved with local charities. You were just elected president of the Sam Dixon board.
Macpherson: Yes that's right, Samuel Dixon (Family Health Center). I was elected their president on Monday night, which was a great honor. And I'm on the (SCV) Resource Center board I was one of their founding members and I'm on the Child and Family (Center) governing board, and I'm a member of Zonta.
Signal: What does the Sam Dixon center do?
Macpherson: Sam Dixon has two clinics one in Val Verde and one in Canyon Country. They serve the unserved and underserved. They do well checkups; they don't do X-rays or the big medical things that you see in a clinic, but they do all the checkups and they do the long-term care (for things like) diabetes. In fact, they have an incredible diabetic program. The staff is very caring. It is a no-cost well there is a cost, a fee, but there is a sliding scale for those who can't afford it. We know a lot of people over 50 percent of people in Santa Clarita do not have health insurance. So they should go to Sam Dixon, where they have a very caring staff will take very good care of them.
See this interview in its entirety today at 8:30 a.m., and watch for another "Newsmaker of the Week" on Wednesday at 9:30 p.m. on SCVTV Channel 20, available to Comcast and Time Warner Cable subscribers throughout the Santa Clarita Valley.