Amid wildfire risk in Bay Area, UC Berkeley’s emergency management office to lose half of staff

Simran Sarin/Staff

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Update 11/06/17: This article has been updated to reflect additional information from UCPD spokesperson Sgt. Sabrina Reich.

The UC Berkeley Office of Emergency Management is set to lose 50 percent of its staff because of cuts.

The Office of Emergency Management, or OEM, is a division of UCPD’s Administrative Unit and is responsible for mitigating and preventing campus risk, as well as preparing for and responding to emergencies. UCPD is cutting the office’s staff from four positions to two positions, according to OEM manager Amina Assefa.

“It’s really sad to see them go. The loss of those two people is a lot greater than any monetary saving the campus will have,” said campus junior Kendall Lee, director of the Berkeley Disaster Team, a student organization sponsored by OEM.

OEM organizes large-scale campus drills, such as this past summer’s Golden Alliance 2017, an earthquake response simulation that included about 400 participants across campus.

But OEM’s role extends beyond preparing for natural disasters such as earthquakes and fires — the office also supported security preparation for Milo Yiannopoulos’ and Ben Shapiro’s appearances on campus. OEM runs the campus’s Emergency Operations Center and trains building coordinators, who are staff members placed in each campus building who are responsible for responses such as evacuations.

“Our goal is to make sure UC Berkeley is still here after a major emergency. That’s the mission of the office, regardless of how many people we have,” Assefa said.

According to UCPD spokesperson Sgt. Sabrina Reich, with UC Berkeley coping with budget constraints, UCPD’s “obligation” is to to make cutbacks if necessary. Reich said in an email that UCPD has “made adjustments” to continue developing strong OEM leadership.

Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory emergency manager Tonya Petty, who works closely with OEM, said she has also faced cuts in her office. According to Petty, because of the large number of vulnerabilities in Berkeley, including the Hayward fault and wildfire risk in the hills, a small office makes planning a challenge.

Petty said it is “unsustainable” for OEM to have a two-member staff at UC Berkeley.

“Typically, when there are this many disasters happening globally, they would increase emergency preparedness, but it seems like it’s going in the other direction,” Petty said.

Lee said losing staff will prevent OEM from having the manpower to organize exercises such as the Golden Alliance 2017. He added that OEM has provided valuable mentorship to students in the Berkeley Disaster Team and that cutting staff will have a “detrimental” effect on the quality of guidance the student group can receive.

“Berkeley Disaster Team (and I) are very cognizant that the campus is in a very tight spot financially, but I don’t think the solution is cutting these very important services,” Lee said. “Cutting down to two is doing the students a disservice.”

There is a 33 percent chance that Berkeley will see an earthquake of magnitude 6.7 or greater on the Hayward or Rodgers Creek faults in the next 30 years, according to Peggy Hellweg, operations manager at the Berkeley Seismology Lab. Hellweg said she believes OEM is important because outreach and training can relieve panic during a disaster.

“Do I expect (the earthquake) to happen tomorrow? No. Would I be surprised if it were to happen tomorrow? Not really,” Hellweg said.

Contact Hannah Piette at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @Hannah_PietteDC.