Emergency Management in California

Reflections by Mark Ghilarducci, Director of the California Governor's Office of Emergency Services

Published Dec 30, 2022

by Mark Ghilarducci, Jason Thomas Barnosky

During a November 2022 webinar, Mark Ghilarducci, the Director of California Governor's Office of Emergency Services (Cal OES), reflected on his more than 30 years of experience and diversified service in public safety and emergency management at the local, state, and federal levels. Director Ghilarducci discussed how California has addressed the immense challenges it has faced from climate change, COVID-19, and other threats; the lessons he learned from these experiences; and what he anticipates for the future of emergency management.

This event was presented by the Disaster Management & Resilience Program (DMR) of the RAND Homeland Security Research Division (HSRD), and was moderated by associate DMR director Jason Thomas Barnosky. HSRD operates the Homeland Security Operational Analysis Center (HSOAC), which is a federally funded research and development center (FFRDC) that conducts studies and analysis for federal sponsors. The DMR webinar series was created to increase understanding of how disaster policies can affect the ability of communities to prepare for, respond to, and recover from disasters.


Jason Barnosky

Welcome, everyone. It's a little after 1:00, so we're going to get started. So I'd like to welcome everyone to the latest edition of the webinar series of the Disaster Management and Resilience Program at HSOAC.

As you may know, this is a semimonthly series in which we invite notable practitioners and scholars in emergency management and disaster studies fields to share their insights and experiences. My name is Jason Barnosky, I'm one of the associate program directors within the Disaster Management and Resilience Program, and I'll be moderating today's event. So we're thrilled to welcome today Mark Ghilarducci, the director of the California Governor's Office of Emergency Services. Director Ghilarducci has been working in emergency management for more than 30 years, holding positions ranging from the state fire chief to a federal coordinating officer at FEMA.

In his current position, he was appointed to in 2013 by Governor Brown as director of the California Governor's Office of Emergency Services, CALOES, and Governor Newsom reappointed him to this position in 2019. So during his time in public service, director Ghilarducci has encountered nearly every hazard imaginable and participated in numerous historic events. In 1996, for example, he led the search for victims and survivors of the Oklahoma City bombing. He also served as an advisor to the governor of Louisiana after Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and in his role in California, he has overseen numerous wildfires, such as the 2018 Camp Fire provided briefings to our most recent three presidents Obama, Trump, and Biden. And obviously he's also played a key role in the state's response to COVID. And I suspect he also has some observations about earthquake preparedness, among other things.

So before I turn to director Ghilarducci to offer his remarks, I'd like to offer just a quick word on format. So the director will be speaking for about 25 to 30 minutes. Once he's done, I'll kick off the discussion with a few questions before taking questions from the audience. For those eager to ask questions, please feel free to put them in the Q-and-A function and then I can ask them for you. So with that, let's everyone please welcome director Ghilarducci. Thank you.

Mark Ghilarducci

Well, thank you, Jason, and greetings to all. Happy to be with you today and get a chance to talk a little bit about emergency management and kind of in the context of what we've had to deal with here in California, and over the course of the last several years, which I would just say arguably have been unprecedented. I was appointed, as Jason mentioned, in 2013 and early on following my appointment, we really started to see the early impacts of climate change and how climate was affecting the state and which this series of events would take hold then and would really frame how the state would be impacted by a series of disasters over the course of the next many years, next ten, 15 years. And really what much of the climate scientists have talked about, we were starting to see firsthand here. And it really started with two things that we saw impacted us. First was the beginning of a pretty significant drought, which ended up lasting initially for about close to four and a half or five years. But with that came conditions that exasperated and accelerated I should say, issues like wildfire. We began then a journey of wildfires occurring in California. One more extensive, more complex, more catastrophic than the previous. And that really started to frame how we were having to deal with it, it made us really look at all of the different kinds of emergency management principles that we had.

Historically, California is a disaster-prone state, we have had fires for a long time. It's not the first time we started having wildfires, but it's the first time we started having wildfires in the extreme that we were seeing, and I'll talk about that in a minute. California is a disaster-prone state, so we have earthquakes, we have floods, in fact, we're rated high on flood potential scale outside of the central part of the United States. Places like the Sacramento Central Valley of California rank number two and three for potential flooding and catastrophic flooding. We have different kinds of environmental impact disasters, we have huge agriculture here in California, so impacts to our crops, etc. So fires, earthquakes, floods, and then of course, California is a unique place. It's very large, many people call it a nation state, 40 million people, an international border which arguably has the largest amount of border crossings in the United States through the same as you reported entry in San Diego County.

We'll talk about that in a minute as well, because that's a whole other operational construct and dynamic that we have been dealing with along the southwest border. And critical infrastructure that's throughout the state, that is significant, very powerful, very important for the GDP of the country, notwithstanding the ports of L.A. and Long Beach and Oakland, but most of the port of L.A. and Long Beach, which moves commodities across the United States through the Pacific Rim. The critical nature of that and the ability to have a pipeline and an infrastructure that moves those commodities to other parts of the country. And we saw a little bit of the bobble of that during COVID about how that it can be impacting to the rest of the country with regards to supply chain, to things like Silicon Valley, where there's innovation in the technology space and the ability to drive technology and provide technology solutions for not just across the country, but around the world. So the significance of California is pretty important. And that, of course, a lot of that falls here at the Office of Emergency Services with regards to our level of being prepared and ability to anticipate and respond to these kinds of things.

In fact, over the last ten years, we have now experienced the worst drought in 1200 years in California, and that's had a lot of cascading impacts. We had to manage a generational pandemic like everybody else across the world. We've had multiple back-to-back catastrophic wildfires. Fifteen of the most destructive fires in the state's history actually have occurred since 2015, seven of which occurred just in the last two years alone, so conditions continue to get worse. We've seen that cascading into our power grid, we've seen an increase in the number of outages that we've had, the impact on the power supply system. Of course, we still have had earthquakes, knock on wood. We have not had the catastrophic earthquake and that is the one thing that we spend a lot of time on preparing for. It's worst case scenario, highest impact, highest consequence event. But, we've had a lot of mid-range and we had a 7.1. Luckily, it was not that populated of an area and we were able to navigate through that. But we know that the big earthquake is coming. We certainly have also had intense storms that have been very sporadic and targeted. So it's not like, well, you know, they had a storm and a flood, the drought's over. No, it gives us a very small time frame of of precipitation, not enough to end the drought, but it comes in such a way through an atmospheric river sort of concept that actually ends up impacting critical infrastructure breaking down. We've had the loss of a major spillway at the world's largest dam in Oroville, the Oroville Dam spillway collapsed as a result of one of these micro-atmospheric river events. And then, of course, throughout the process of 2020, for example, we were deep in the response to COVID. We had at least something like 20 different wildfires that were burning throughout the state, very significant. And we had civil unrest from the end of southern California all the way up to northern California that we had to manage. All of these have been an ongoing challenge. And it's resulted in us having to continually reevaluate and understand principles and concepts in emergency management.

So, we have literally had to transform over the last ten years what emergency management looks like, how we do situational awareness, how we lean forward. The old adage that, you know, the levels of government sort of wait, you wait until the phone rings when you know, at the state level, when local government gets in trouble or they need assistance, they make a telephone call and they request assistance from the state, those days are really over. This is really a one time, one fight effort. We're all integrated now. That collaborative, interactive, situation awareness incident forecasting the ability to share information in a timely way in advance of a potential. Our effort here has been to really focus on what can we do in advance of an event happening? How can we buy down the impacts of that event? And and we do this in various verticals, right? In wildfire, we have established and really amplified technology to be able to do everything from predictive analysis, looking at all the high risk areas of the state, being able to forecast the potential for fire spread or fire start.

We have leveraged capabilities like satellite technology. We've leveraged partnerships with the Department of Defense through our California National Guard to be able to use DoD satellites, to be able to pinpoint hotspots that that we may not see typically. But you could see it through satellite and give us an ability to identify where that is and respond to it rapidly to be able to extinguish it. We set a metric to keep all fires at ten acres or less to try to minimize the amount of impact to the communities that we've seen year in and year out. We have built in a capability where we've got surveillance aircraft that are flying over that can rapidly downlink to responding incident commanders or fire strike teams at the local level and see it on their smartphones or in real time on their tablets. What the fire perimeter looks like, how fast it's spreading, what is a community that could be potentially impacted? And that then rolls into the ability to more accurately and rapidly determine how we would do evacuations or replace resources in a much more effective and coordinated way. But we've also built in a new capability. And if you think about it from this context, on the East Coast, when hurricanes are coming, where the National Hurricane Center is tracking potential storm development five or six days out.

And as that storm develops, they're making predictions of where that landfall is going to take place. And then they can warn the public, and local and state and federal resources, the private sector and citizens themselves can then act accordingly to be able to to respond to that. So I was thinking through that, took a page out of that to say, what can we do in the context of wildfire in California where we can actually use technology to see fire weather evolving four and five days out in advance? Working with our National Weather Service, working with our state meteorologists. And so we built a center, it's a joint center, much like not at the level of the National Hurricane Center, but certainly for what we need, a joint center with our California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, the U.S. Forest Service, the National Weather Service, our National Guard, my office, to be able to build this center and leverage all of the weather technology to make an advanced determination as to where the fire weather is going to be most impactful, what counties down to what communities. And then we lay that over with high intensity fire map areas that we've done throughout the state. And when we know where red flag conditions are going to be as a result of that, we can actually pre-position fire strike teams in advance of the fire breaking out. And we just put them in an area, the highest risk area. And should a fire break out, those pre-position assets are immediately on the scene to extinguish the fire or assist with evacuations.

Or if the conditions are so great, we may want to do a pre-evacuation to get people out of harm's way so that the firefighters can focus on firefighting, all of this in a coordinated fashion. So, in the case of technology, through situational awareness, through other means, we've increased the level at which we can share that information. And it has to be something that is shared up and down between local government, state government and all of our partners, and then ultimately articulated to the public. And that expansion has been really something that's continued to evolve over the last few years and has been very, very successful. And we continue to learn and grow from that, and all of us are participating in it, but it doesn't come without an infrastructure. We've needed to also expand our public safety communications capability, increasing our interoperability capability. We expanded and enhanced our 9-1-1 system where all of these things sort of start from like people calling 9-1-1. But we wanted to have resiliency in that. But we also work with our telecommunications partners, both at the electrical utilities as well as telecoms, to build resiliency in their systems so that they would have, and we could count on, those systems being operational and sustainable through these various kinds of events.

So this has really been an all-hands-on-deck approach over the last several years, and it's proven to be phenomenal. We've also done some innovative things working with our utilities which have had an infrastructure that's older where we would have power lines drop and start fires. We've done some very controversial, innovative, possibly things where utilities utilizing the same data that I talked about, about what we would see in our wildfire forecasting center, our National Hurricane Center format, and being able to anticipate of possibly turning the power off in certain key areas that were going to be high-risk fire zones. It's called public safety power shut off. And so working with local governments, working with the community based organizations, publicly announcing through the community and getting people to understand that turning the power off is actually a mitigation measure to be able to buy down the risk of wildfire. And you know, at first it was very controversial and very difficult. And the state, my office, we pushed out grants, we work a lot with communities of access and functional needs and representatives throughout community-based organizations to build capacity for those who were most vulnerable to be able to have resources to make sure they withstood the time period that the power be off. And we work with the utilities through our Public Utilities Commission to ensure that the power would be off for the minimal amount of time.

At the same time, working with them to build microgrids and be able to carve out key areas like 9-1-1 centers and hospitals and other critical infrastructure that we did not want the power turned off to through this process, and that has continued to evolve and expand and it's really been a phenomenal success over the long run. Of course, all of this has been talked about a lot with the response operations. When you think about all of this, it's that you can't necessarily firefight your way out of all these wildfires or through the earthquake. We have to do mitigation, we have to spend a lot of time in our principles about building capacity and resiliency. And so we have implemented programs across the board, starting with equity and inclusion within emergency management programs. These programs, all programs now, all response, all recovery, all mitigation grants and other grants that we do here are framed through the lens of equity and fairness. We know that there are disadvantaged communities and individuals that get hit by these disasters. They are disproportionately impacted by these events. And we want to make sure that that there's enough resources and the right resources to be able to address those and really want to do that on the front end and build resiliency into their capacity and then help them navigate through that during the major disaster event and then through the recovery process.

We have unfortunately lost a lot of communities, particularly in our Sierra-Front areas, where every year we've lost whole towns. This year alone, we lost two additional communities in far northern California. And while they're small communities, the entire community gets lost and it is catastrophic for these folks. And so we've had to learn to work and and take the emergency manager principles to another level, a different level. Leaning forward, leveraging all of the capabilities and resources that the state, the locals, and our federal government have. Leveraging our mutual aid systems, which we have very extensive and longstanding mutual aid capabilities. But it's not just public mutual aid. It's leveraging our private-sector partners. One thing I did when I came here is establish the office of Public, Private and Nongovernmental Coordination within the Executive Office of the Director. And that was really to leverage all of our private sector partners. We have such enriched capabilities in California, whether it's the tech industry or the groceries industry or transportation, they need to be a partner with us. And so we work to bring them into our state operations center, they're sitting at the table with us during emergencies as a partner and we move forward together in the overall planning. And so it's really leveraging the whole of community in our ability to effectively respond to and then recover from these events. And, going through response, I mean, these responses can be very complicated. Notwithstanding that you have one kind of threat, you're dealing with a wildfire. But when you're dealing with a wildfire during a massive pandemic, during a civil unrest, all happening at the same time. And "oh we could have, you know, something like an earthquake jump in there as well," you have to be able to effectively utilize principles of coordination. Coordination being what I would say understood and underestimated importance in the overall role of emergency management, in bringing all these agencies and capabilities together, but having a set of priorities and objectives and metrics that are utilized, that are coordinated at the highest level.

So here in California, we have a unified coordination group that gets established at the highest level with the governor and governors cabinet, key cabinet agencies that have a response and recovery role and coordinated by and facilitated by myself, utilizing the authorities that are invested in our Emergency Services Act, which is very, very powerful, to be able to leverage all of government, local, state, and then coordinate with our federal partners to be able to respond to all of these events. And so that unified coordination group is making decisions based upon the action plans that come in. So from the local incident level, that information gets pushed up to the state operations center, which develops an overarching action plan which comes up to the unified coordination group that we're looking at all of that data in an operational period and making decisions that need to be made, that prioritizing how the state would respond, how they would leverage to be able to stay out in front of these. And that's where all of these different things are adjudicated and effectively manage. And then we work on a a communications package for public education, public information of crisis communications in a timely way to keep the public informed of what we're doing. And so we're continually learning, we're continually having to pivot to meet the the impacts and challenges that we face.

And, you know, the reality is that all of this has significantly changed from when I first got here. And it's been sort of a firehose, I guess you could say, of incidents and events. We've had major terrorist attacks in the state during my tenure. We've had, obviously, biohazards, major hazardous material spills, oil spills off the coast of California in highly sensitive areas, it's not withstanding you have an oil spill off of the coast of California, but these are all spills that are happening in the highly sensitive environmental areas of the state and having that major impact and cybersecurity events, all of these have caused us to work with our legislature and our governors to build capability. I mentioned the Wildfire Intelligence Center. We have a new fire intelligence aircraft, it's really an all-hazard aircraft to get real time downlink information situational awareness. We have situational awareness tools, we use a lot of data analytics that we've never used before to help us make decisions and artificial intelligence capabilities to be able to make us make the appropriate decisions. And really to stay out in front of the evolving crisis. Hopefully we can mitigate on the front end, then it starts way, way in advance.

We we work a lot with our communities to identify risks and gaps, and then we push a lot of grants out and we have metrics with regards to building adequate mitigation and resiliency throughout the state. We have programs that are focused on disenfranchised and underserved communities like Listos California. Listos is the Spanish word for prepared, and it's targeted for a demographics within the state that typically are afraid of government or don't come to government for assistance, but many of them need it the most. We have Prepared California, which also looks at disadvantaged communities, but it's innovative. It's leveraging state dollars to make the match of federal dollars for hazard mitigation programs, to build that resiliency. Many times, underserved communities don't have the resources or the funding to be able to effectively do mitigation. But through this program, we can work with those communities to ensure that they can in fact build the capacity within the community. We are doing innovative things like home hardening and community hardening where we go in and whether it's seismic retrofits in large swaths of areas that have high seismic activity where we can go in and actually retrofit homes to make sure they are livable after a quake, which then reduces the amount of impact that we're going to have of housing people after an earthquake, we can get them back into their homes. That's our first and foremost priority.

But also in wildfire and being able to build fire-resistance communities and be able to withstand the kind of climate-related impacts that we're seeing now and that will last for the next 20 or 30 years until things change. So we know that this is a marathon, not a sprint, and that we have to be building in those resiliency capabilities over the course of the next many years. And we've been very blessed with a legislature and a governor, both governors that I served under who get it and understand the complexity of the threat to California and understand climate-related impacts and how that has cascading consequences throughout the state. So from the mitigation standpoint in preparedness up through our response and then into the recovery, we're doing innovative things. Everything from debris management, debris removal, we have metrics that rapidly remove debris, identify all the hazardous waste and hazardous materials teams that will go in. And again, before 2015, we had none of these programs, so we have had to learn in the last ten years how to build a massive debris management program, the ability to effectively go in and clear lots of fire debris or earthquake debris, get that community clean and clear, certify that they're ready to be rebuilt on and then work with them on rebuilding.

And in some cases, it's actually restructuring the way that the community is designed. Some of these communities were designed years ago in the 50s and 60s, that they didn't take into account the kind of conditions that we're facing today. So this gives us an opportunity to start fresh and restructure what a community would look like, and we would provide funding for that. If it's a federal-declared major disaster declaration, we can work with HUD CBDR program. We can work with FEMA and other agencies, state agencies, state funding, to be able to work with those communities to build a more resilient community into the future. The key thing is the speed at which we move is important. The faster we can get the community cleaned up, the faster the community can start to rebuild. And from an economic standpoint, not just for the community itself, but for individuals that have been impacted, the sooner we can get the community rebuilt, the sooner that the community can economically recover, the region can recover, and the state can recover. So when you think about one or two events, that's manageable. But this summer alone, I've had fires from from the Mexican border in San Diego all the way up to the Oregon border in Siskiyou. And I've lost communities up and down the state, or homes up and down the state of critical infrastructure.

So it all has a cumulative effect, and we have to think through that as we build our capabilities to respond to all of this. So emergency management, I think, you know, the old adage of waiting for the phone to ring is far past. This is really all hands on deck. I think emergency managers, it's really important to think they need to think broadly. I talked to emergency managers that, "droughts, not my problem" or "pandemic's not my issue as health and human services" or "drought is the Department of Water Resources," or whatever. The fact of the matter is, as emergency management, it's all of our problems. All of these things are our problems. We need to invest and bring the the knowledge base and the ability to coordinate and leverage and convene to be able to get everybody rowing in the same direction to solve a problem. We operate under a concept of metrics, action planning to objectives and priorities that are time bound and those time-bound objectives help us to move something very rapidly and ultimately get a community recover. My role, I spent a lot of time during disasters going into the community, having community members hear from me personally. I go once, I go twice, I go ten times. Whatever it takes to be able to build back that trust in government to ensure that it's not just an empty promise that we're responding, but that we're there from the beginning, through the middle, to the end. And we embed folks in these communities throughout the course of the life cycle of the disaster from beginning to end, to ensure that all of those expectations are met.

This is something that is a "one team one fight." There is no Republican-Democrat, this is just people. And I think disaster management, I do know and am cognizant of the fact that all disasters are political events, but I also understand that the way you approach that can be that it's a "people first" issue. And whether it's underserved or wealthy folks in affluent communities, everybody's going to get the resources and support they need. So I'll kind of wrap it up there. I just would say that the last 12 years or so since I've been here, I don't know what happened, but it's just been crazy. And I've had a team of people understand that I lead an organization of unbelievably talented people and they just do phenomenal work and they always, always step up to the plate while everybody was at home during the pandemic, this place was operational. In fact, the entire state government shut down the executive branch, the governor, the governor's staff moved in here for several months at the state operations center, part of our continuity of government plan. And the teams all came in and they worked their butt off, and they did that while also managing multiple other events, I cannot speak more highly about these folks. I'm so proud of them. And and I'm proud of people in emergency management overall. I mean, there's always a lot of focus and we are all one.

OES here in California is unique, we have emergency management, we have a fire rescue, we manage the fire rescue system. We have a law enforcement presence, we do homeland security. I didn't talk much about our our whole security enterprise, but it's pretty vast, multiple fusion centers and a cybersecurity center that we manage. All of these were evolved as a result of threats and changes and needs and then pulled together in a coordinated way. But throughout my tenure it's been about collaboration, right? I try to make as many task forces, I try to make as many joint centers where we leverage all of the capabilities of multiple agencies. I feel like we're stronger, diversified than we are as one. And so it's the people that really make up the the organization and the ability. So it's really been a phenomenal opportunity to serve with them. And the last ten years has been, it's really been something else. And I know it's not just here, it's been all over the world, but I think we were sort of early on, we were seeing a lot of that here in California. And just from the size and scope and scale of of California, the impacts that we've seen, if you think about how diverse California is and both from topography, from population and the significance California has to the rest of the world, it was really important to continue to stay out in front of these and build a very, very robust emergency management and continuity program. So with that, I hope that's helpful and happy to answer any questions.

Jason Barnosky

All right. Well, thank you so much for a great, some wonderful reflections and just a great discussion, a great conversation so far. I think I mentioned the beginning of the chat that everyone should feel free to put some questions into the Q-and-A function and then I can ask them. But while everyone's getting warmed up, I thought maybe I could ask a few questions and then I'll turn to that. So you gave us just a ton of, so much innovation going on in California and so much you've accomplished and worked on over the past few years. I thought maybe I could start with like a softball question and just ask you a little bit about what brought you to emergency management? How did you get started in the field and how have you felt about your career? What's been most surprising with all this experience you've had?

Mark Ghilarducci

That's a great question. It's funny because at a very young age, I was very intrigued by public service, I think probably from scouting and that whole piece there was I was intrigued by that. At a young age, I got involved in mountain rescue, search and rescue, and that sort of was the thing that got me going. I think I was just really fascinated by that. And so, I really spent a lot of my time, even out of high school getting into the business early on, very young, nineteen, I went to paramedic school and I was very interested in the fire service and along that way I worked in EMS for a while and at the local level cut my teeth a lot on what's happening in local communities, I liked to go into local communities that were most disadvantaged and it gave me a sense of what was happening in these communities and sort of set my my philosophies on things. And then along the way, I decided that I probably needed more education. So, ended up going to University of California at Davis in the attempt to go to medical school, actually. And along the way, I met my soon-to-be wife at college and I knew folks through the search and rescue and fire service realm here at OES that asked if I'd be interested in coming over to OES, at the time I was med school bound.

But there was something significant that happened in 1985, which was the Mexico City earthquake, which was catastrophic. And California recognized that they did not have a sufficient enough technical and advanced search and rescue program for structural collapse after a big earthquake. And all the projections were that we in California were going to have a major, major quake at some point. So they said, listen, we want to develop some sort of advanced capability. Would you be interested in just coming on board and helping us develop that? And at the time I thought, okay, that's kind of cool. So I diverted off, finished off college, veered off in the medical school for a little bit, deferred there and then came to work for the state to help build what is now known as the National Urban Search and Rescue Response System. So that system, of course, now not just national, it's also international. But early on, there were only a few capabilities.

There were some capability in New York there was some capability in Miami and in Virginia. And then we had some capability in California, but it wasn't an organized interagency, multiagency sort of approach. So I studied a lot across the world, the Brits, the French, Europeans had a lot of advancement on this because of World War II, and they've got lots of capability for dealing with structural collapse in massive ways. And so I spent a lot of time learning from them and then ended up coming back and writing a program here in California which ended up on the governor's desk at the time and was asking for some $2.5 million to get a program going. I had identified departments at the local level that would work with the state in partnership that would become the first of the urban search and rescue teams. And it sat on the governor's desk for a long time and I didn't think it was going to fly. And then the Loma Prieta earthquake hit the San Francisco Bay area. And I remember we lost the Cypress structure collapsed and a lot of fires and buildings collapsed in Santa Cruz and San Francisco. And by that evening, the governor signed that into an act. And we got funding for the search and rescue program. So, that was in our fire and rescue division, I worked in fire and rescue as one of the chief officers for several years and that's how I ended up going to Oklahoma City. And because I was on the original development of the National Urban Search and Rescue Response System and sat on the National Advisory Board for many years, I was also one of the incident commanders on that.

And so when they used our program and went to Oklahoma, it was one of the first major deployments to major building collapse. When we got there, I was asked to serve as the incident commander on the federal USAR response and partnered up with Gary Marrs at Oklahoma City Fire and we worked it together to be able to to respond to that. And that was sort of the beginning of where we were at with our national urban search and rescue system. I did that for a number of years, and then in '97, I left the state at the request of President Clinton and former FEMA Director James Lee Witt and Congress had approved a new program. It was a new program for 25 federal coordinating officers and these FCOs had a lot of authority to help manage disasters around the country. And so I left the state and went to work for FEMA for a number of years to do that work and it was phenomenal.

I still use all of those relationships today and the knowledge that I gained from that when I was at disasters across the country and then came back to the state of California for a few more years through 9/11 as the chief deputy director here at OES and kind of navigated the state through the whole 9/11 and the transfer of emergency management to homeland security and all that stuff that went along with that. And then in 2003, left the state again to go to the private sector and I did that for the better part of ten years. And I actually partnered with James Lee Witt and opened this company. We were working all over the world on crisis management, and that gave me a massive appreciation for education on worldwide challenges and and what I learned from other countries about emergency management. And I worked a lot in the Pacific Rim, Asia, China, Indonesia, Japan, really learning a lot about what was going on there and brought a lot of that back. And then around 2012 or so, Governor Brown, at the time here in California, asked if I would be interested in taking on the role as director.

There were some big transitions that were happening and I really couldn't do it at first because I was still working in the private sector. But then we came to agreement and most people don't know, but as soon as we agreed to that, shortly after I got diagnosed with cancer and it was pretty advanced, and it was in my throat. And so I talked to the governor and basically told him I probably could do the job because he needed somebody strong to get through that and I didn't know if I was gonna survive this. And he decided to appoint me that day. So for the first seven or eight months, I was actually sick or in a hospital and they checked on me all the time. And really, we worked it from that angle. And then as soon as I could get back on my feet, thank God, we hit the ground running. My first thing was responding to a wildfire in northern California up in Shasta County. And I remember a week before that, I was in a hospital bed and then I was up in Shasta County at a wildfire and it sort of never stopped since then. I've just been at it and focused in this role and it's just been I mean, that's sort of a high level summary, but it's just been a phenomenal career and it sort of drove me into this whole emergency management realm. But all of the experiences from local government, the private sector, state government, the federal government, international, all of those are all pieces that help, I think, build my career and my understanding and my interpretation of of how to respond and build that organization. So it's been just fantastic.

Jason Barnosky

Well, thank you. Well, let me turn to some audience questions now. So, Zach Smith asked a little bit about coordination. So one of the things you spent a good amount of time talking about was how this change that you've seen in emergency management, where it's turning into this kind of one team effort with the federal, state and locals kind of trying to work together in a way that's maybe a little bit different. I'd love to hear you talk a little more about that. What are the big challenges that you've seen? What needs to be fixed? You know, we work a lot with DHS and FEMA and so we're always kind of trying to understand the dynamic there and ways that we can kind of help out and make things better. I'd love to hear your thoughts on that.

Mark Ghilarducci

Well, I still think even though we've had lots of events that should be driving us more, I still think we need do more with information sharing and this sort of collaborative effort. I think the natural progression, the natural human inclination is to go back to our respective stovepipes, to go to our respective corners and not necessarily be willing to share information or, you know, the people like a structure. And I think structure is important, don't get me wrong. But I think in this case, you know, emergency management, even on the advance of events like during the mitigation and preparedness phase, sharing information and capabilities only builds a broader ability to prepare for and respond to and recover. Now, you can do that by still understanding that there are statutory authorities and regulations that exist at the various levels of government. But I've always been of the mind that I don't want to get caught up to the point that it's an impediment to respond to a life-saving event or to prepare for a life-saving event.

So, we have something here that California put in place after a catastrophic event, the '92 fires, I think it was '92 or '91 in Oakland Hills. It was a firestorm, burned down, 3800 homes, something like that. And as a result of that, we implemented a statutory authority to standardize the emergency management system, SEMS, as we call it, was the precursor to NEMS. And this system outlines how every level of government will coordinate, share information, stop starts at the bottom as far as city government to an operational area or county, county to the region, region to the state, state to the federal. All political subdivisions of California, cities, counties, special districts accept to participate by regulation in this system. It's a phenomenal system that keeps us all on the same page. It helps us to all work in the same direction, but it can also be an impediment in that well, you know, the city didn't go to the county appropriately, didn't go to the state appropriately, or the state came down from the state level to the local level.

And I think that the one thing to learn, particularly from these fast moving events that we're seeing that are starting, they evolve rapidly and they have an immediate and rapid impact to people's lives and property that sometimes you have to not approach things super literally, it's not a linear response. It's an it's an asymmetric event, it takes a different requirement, a different approach, different coordination, different information, sure. So if on the front end of these events you are collaborating together, if on the front end of these events, you're testing, training, educating, but you use the concepts of incident command, use the concept of SEMS, use the concepts of NEMS to be able to effectively respond.

And that's really important because I think that a lot of times people notwithstanding just the need to want to stay in their structure, structure is important, don't get me wrong, and you want to operate within a structure to the degree possible, but you also understand that these are guidelines and concepts that you need to leverage to help you stay organized and effective, but that the incidents you're facing, they're not looking at that, they're not looking at jurisdictional boundaries. They're not looking at who's getting impact and who's not. They're not looking at the speed at which they're spreading, all those are happening in real time. And so this has been, I think a big, somewhat controversial, I guess, to some degree with me here in California. But, I believe that our standardized system is critical and I think it is foundational to everything that we do. But I also understand that it's a concept, it's a guideline that we operate from to be able to effectively respond. So that's probably, I would say the biggest thing that I've seen change.

The other big change I've seen is really understanding the impact. So all disasters are local events, right? They start and end in a local community. So many parts of the state are impacted by a disaster, I don't care how you look at it, economically etc. But it really does affect a community. It's where people live and go to church and go to school and, you know it's their livelihood. So it's really important to understand what's happening in communities. We need to understand the equity and we need to be able to address it, get down into the deepest reaches of a community and make sure that all those folks are effectively being cared for. That was never more evident during than during the pandemic. And then here, we have a situation where it's not just one community that's being impacted by a disaster, but it's the entire state, entire world. And it's all of us. It's not just the the people that we're responding for, but it's us, ourselves that are in this disaster. It's our families that are in this disaster. So we have to think about how we're going to respond to this and it is both bottom up and top down. It's sideways to be able to effectively respond to this event.

And I think emergency management really took a major step forward in the evolutionary process in the pandemic because there were so many different agencies that had authority. But they were authorities under their respective vertical, their respective pipeline, their stovepipe. And emergency management was able to take all of those entities and bring them under an umbrella to have an effective state response to these, whether it was for commodity management or acquisition, or resource allocation, or logistics support, or vaccinations, or feeding people who were shut-ins, seniors and people with access and functional needs that did not have the ability to get out or had no one to go to or be able to reach all those, to people who are homeless that were going to be affected by COVID but had no place to go and being able to build up a capacity for that. All of those were were innovative and complex thinking they were based upon.

I think what emergency management does is looks at the complexity of a situation and they're solution-oriented to be able to find the best resource, the best solution, and leverage the best capability to be able to achieve what objectives you're trying to get to. So that's kind of the sum of those those areas, I think that still, we need to stay at it. And there's a lot of things that come at us, directions that come at us, that we can lose sight of that. But we do need to make sure that we continue to information share, collaborate and understand that one size does not fit all. So we have to really think through that.

Jason Barnosky

Thank you very much, that was very interesting. Kind of building on that one, one of my colleagues, Paul Brenner, asked a question about partnerships with the private sector. And so he kind of notes that California is known for having good partnerships with electric utilities and was kind of curious about the involvement of partnerships with the insurance industry and kind of the extent that they are involved in this kind of world, in these activities.

Mark Ghilarducci

Well, we actually have a very robust partnership with a number of private sector areas. And, I mean, it's phenomenal. The private sector has just a massive amount of capabilities and they have a lot of interest in providing support during disasters. But they don't know how to plug into the system and they don't know how to leverage their resources in the best, most effective way. And that's why we think that what we can really do here in government is be able to provide a pathway for them. In the case of insurance, it's unique here, we have an organization called the California Earthquake Authority. It's, in essence, the state's earthquake insurance program, it's an insurance agency. I chaired the board of directors for that. It's given us an opportunity to engage more broadly with the insurance industry. We have Insurance Commissioner's Office, which is a constitutional office within the state. I spend time with the insurance commissioner and our folks. We now respond to a disaster, work with members of the Insurance Commissioner's Office, and then we try to work with the various insurance providers. I have many times brought them around a roundtable to talk about things like preparedness and planning on the front end of disaster, how we can work to buy down the risk.

For example, if we harden a community against wildfire, or we can work to seismically retrofit a home, can the industry provide discounts to individuals on their insurance premiums or in a case where the insurance may not necessarily want to provide insurance? If we work to provide mitigation into those areas and build a more resilient community, will the insurance industry reevaluate and step in and provide insurance to those communities? So there's a number of things that we do with the insurance industry and they have been pretty good partners. I mean, they are working to try to find ways to be solution-oriented. And at times, I'm not going to sugarcoat this, there's challenges sometimes when we want them to be a little bit more proactive, but we also understand where they're coming from. And that's part of that partnership and that relationship. The more we know about each other, the more we can understand what they can and cannot do. And then we can leverage those pieces that we know that they can be partnering with us on. So I think that's an ever evolving area, there's more work to be done in that area. But I think it's promising and it's been getting better and better as the years have gone on.

Jason Barnosky

Thank you. Well, we're coming up on the hour. So let me just ask one last question that we can close on and then kind of let you go for the day. So one of the things that's just particularly fascinating about California and listening you talk is just the sheer breadth of challenges that you have to deal with just in terms of the different kinds of natural hazards and threats that you have to deal with. And then just the, California's such a diverse state. I'd love to hear like, did you institute or take part in policies to kind of get ahead of things like what's the nonidentifiable threats that you're worried about or things that typically weren't on your radar. Did you kind of make that a regular part of your process to try to get ahead of what the next big worry is?

Mark Ghilarducci

We do I mean, I'll say, yes, we do. And we actually have to because I'm all about not wanting to be late to need, I want to try to anticipate as much as we possibly can. So, I mentioned what we've done on prepositioning based upon what the potential threats are going to be in the seismic area. You know, we've worked with the legislature, the governor, and invested into the nation's first earthquake early warning system. We put sensors up and down the state of California that are designed to sense the hypocenter of an earthquake, not the epicenter, but the hypocenter, so it's deep in the ground. And before the energy is emitted up to shaking level, the sensors sense that there is going to be an earthquake coming and we can push out a warning to people on their on their smartphones via an app that will tell them within up to 90 seconds, the shaking is going to begin. So drop, cover and hold, stop your car, but get into a safe zone.

But it's really impactful in industry. Think about if you're an eye surgeon and you're about to do a procedure and you get a warning that the earthquake's coming, you can stop that procedure or firehouse doors can roll up automatically or school alarms can go off so kids can get under things, or train stops automatically, so that doesn't get derailed. All of these things are all preventative things that we've implemented here and thought through on the front end. Our security side of things, we're constantly evaluating risks and threats: threats to critical infrastructure; foreign adversaries; now domestic adversaries, which are much more broader and more prevalent in today's day and age; security threats to our election and our energy grid. We're anticipating a lot of what's happening with our energy grid as we move from from a traditional energy distribution system to renewables and what does that mean in the long run if we have major disasters and how do we ensure that the lights stay on? How do we ensure that we have that capacity and capability as we move off of traditional systems into new, innovative systems? These are phenomenal meetings that we have and discussions we have and are collaborative so much that we invest our our universities and folks that are thinking through this in a broader way.

At the same time, we're doing that while we're facing constant actual responses to emergencies, which never seem to slow down here, so it's really kind of a balance. My big challenge is I have a workforce that is tired, they're working at things all the time. And I want them to think, like what are you thinking about in a broad sense? What are you thinking about outside of the response? But what are these other things we're talking about here? And sometimes, it's hard to do that while you're flying the plane about what is it going to be like to build a new place? So all of that is a factor, but think tanks, and I was just on a call this morning that was phenomenal about about what we call black sky events, loss of the power grid, the ability to effectively have communications and address the needs like we did last week in Northern Command in Colorado where I was getting briefed on some DoD aspects on ways to repower the grid. So there's a lot of work that's done in this and I think it's very, very important because you have to stay out not just one or two, but maybe five steps out in front of what the next threat is going to be and really anticipate that.

Jason Barnosky

Thank you very much. Well, we've reached 2:00. I just want to thank you, Dr. Ghilarducci, for your time and your insight. This has been a great conversation and we really appreciate it, so thank you so much. All right, well, have a good afternoon. Thank you, everybody, for joining in the great questions.

Mark Ghilarducci

Thank you everybody, God bless.

Jason Barnosky

Thank you.

This report is part of the RAND conference proceeding series. RAND conference proceedings present a collection of papers delivered at a conference or a summary of the conference.

Our mission to help improve policy and decisionmaking through research and analysis is enabled through our core values of quality and objectivity and our unwavering commitment to the highest level of integrity and ethical behavior. To help ensure our research and analysis are rigorous, objective, and nonpartisan, we subject our research publications to a robust and exacting quality-assurance process; avoid both the appearance and reality of financial and other conflicts of interest through staff training, project screening, and a policy of mandatory disclosure; and pursue transparency in our research engagements through our commitment to the open publication of our research findings and recommendations, disclosure of the source of funding of published research, and policies to ensure intellectual independence. For more information, visit www.rand.org/about/research-integrity.

RAND is a nonprofit institution that helps improve policy and decisionmaking through research and analysis. RAND's publications do not necessarily reflect the opinions of its research clients and sponsors.