This post was authored by Lisa S. Charbonneau.
In July 2018 alone, California Governor Brown proclaimed a State of Emergency for eight counties — Lake, Mendocino, Mariposa, Napa, Riverside, Santa Barbara, San Diego, Shasta, and Siskiyou Counties — due to fires, and proclaimed a State of Emergency in San Bernardino County due to damage caused by a monsoonal rainstorm event. Under the California Emergency Services Act (CESA), such proclamations have special significance for public agencies and their employees because a proclaimed State of Emergency may trigger the activation of the Disaster Service.
By law, all public employees in California are mandatory members of the Disaster Service by operation of oath / affirmation typically administered at the time of hire. Originally envisioned as a way to trigger a civilian defense force against military invasion or attack during World War II and the Cold War, today the Disaster Service is generally activated to combat States of Emergency due to natural disasters like wildfires, storms, and earthquakes when the damage and effects of these events are beyond the ability of any single local government to effectively address.
In a State of Emergency (or Local Emergency), local and distant law enforcement, medical personnel, and fire personnel will provide emergency response in the communities experiencing the effects of the disaster. Civilian public employees provide disaster-related duties that are not emergency response but are still critical in managing a disaster. Typical civilian Disaster Service work duties include answering phones, staffing shelters, serving food, driving, managing volunteers, translating or interpreting, cleaning debris, sorting, packing and loading supplies, and otherwise providing victims with government services. Once activated as Disaster Service Workers, public employees may be required to perform duties that differ greatly from their normal positions. They may be assigned to perform Disaster Service work outside of their normal schedules and away from their usual job locations.
Unlike law enforcement/fire/medical personnel, most civilian public employees are not used to the extreme pressures and chaos of emergency response-related work. Thus overseeing civilian Disaster Service Workers poses its own challenges. The best way to effectively marshal an agency’s resources in a State of Emergency is to pre-plan for the activation of civilian Disaster Service Workers and pre-train on logistics of Disaster Service Work as much as possible. For example, employees should know where to call, what web site to check, or how otherwise to know where/when to report to work in a State of Emergency in their locality. All employees should be regularly pre-trained on their responsibilities as Disaster Service Workers, and supervisors should receive additional pre-training on their specific roles, e.g., on assigning disaster-related tasks, special timekeeping requirements, and policies they must enforce. Moreover, agencies should regularly audit Disaster Service records to ensure current contact information and up-to-date Disaster Service Worker classifications (the category of task a Disaster Worker is supposed to perform as stated on their Disaster Service registration).
Agencies should also develop payroll and personnel policies to govern work performed by employees in a State of Emergency and/or under Mutual Aid Agreements. For example, will MOU overtime provisions apply? Who is permitted to approve overtime. How will employees be compensated for time spent travelling to an out-of-area assignment? Will employees be permitted to drive themselves to special disaster-related assignments? Should non-exempt employees be allowed to volunteer to perform similar services as they are regularly employed to perform? How will agencies monitor whether an employee’s Disaster Service assignment complies with any medical restrictions they may have? What policies apply if an employee has been evacuated from their home or cannot show up to work due to responsibility for taking care of children or the elderly? Are there special concerns when deploying disabled employees as Disaster Service Workers? Who will determine what agency positions must be back-filled if the incumbent cannot fulfill his or her duties because he or she is serving as a Disaster Service Worker.
Finally, agencies should evaluate whether they have sufficient resources for employees to stay fed and hydrated, and to take breaks as needed, while working long and stressful hours as a Disaster Service Worker.