Toward the end of the year 1999, as year 2000 (Y2K) approached, the whole world was apprehensive about the general dependence on computers and the fact that most had been programmed to use data representing the year in two digits. When those digits turned "00," it became difficult to predict how the computers would react, and, in turn, what would happen in their control of almost all of the hardware influencing our lives. Media hype exaggerated the permutations and combinations of possibilities of disaster.

In Santa Barbara County (SBC), the computers were modified, at great expense, to be ready to recognize Y2K as 2000. In many departments, the new year was greeted by supervisors and much of the staff on alert and on the job. The sense of precaution carried on to Santa Barbara County Fire Department Headquarters at 4410 Cathedral Oaks Road, Santa Barbara. A "nerve center" was set up in a tent outside the building accommodating the County's Office of Emergency Services (OES), as well as other agencies such as the State Office of Emergency Services, American Red Cross, Amateur Radio Emergency Services, Fire Districts, Cities, Health Care Providers, Public Works, Sheriff's volunteers, Office of County Administrator, Facility Services, and Utilities. The use of a tent (Figure 1) as an Emergency Operations Center (EOC) was not new in Santa Barbara County. The advantage this time was that winter inhibits the activity of rattlesnakes, which have appeared in the tent in the past.

Planning for the non-event of Y2K was extensive and cautious because of the concern about the unknown. Preparations at the OES were underway for a period of fifteen months. In a very few hours after the start of Y2K, it was obvious that the "emergency" was over.


While observing the Y2K issues, the Grand Jury (GJ) recognized the County’s lack of permanent EOC facilities and began to look into why there is still the need for one. The objective was to determine the need for a permanent EOC building and the feasibility of the County to accomplish this.


The Emergency Plan

Greatly needed in Santa Barbara County is a Standardized Emergency Management System (SEMS) approved EOC. The SEMS is a state-mandated coordination center much like the fire department's Incident Command System. SEMS plans include all governmental agencies and standardized training for the agencies. Each local governmental entity is responsible for training its personnel in SEMS.

Under SEMS there is a specific disaster plan first involving local officials and services. If more help is needed, then the County OES is involved to coordinate an “Operational Area.” SBC is responsible for coordinating with other local governments within the county boundaries, which include the seven cities in the county, 40 plus special districts as well as school district. If more help is needed, the State Office of Emergency Services can declare a ‘state of emergency’ in Santa Barbara County. The top level is national help, or Presidential Declaration of Emergency.

During an emergency incident or disaster, critical information is communicated to local governments in SBC through the Santa Barbara Operational Area (SBOA). Concurrently, if local governments need resources and mutual aid, a request is placed through the Operational Area. Thus, the SBC plays a crucial role in serving not only the residents of our county, but other local governmental entities who rely on the county during an emergency.

The County’s coordination role is not dormant during non-emergency times. The OES facilitates quarterly meetings of two important committees that are focused on emergency response planning. They include 1) the policy level Operational Area Council, which consists of the County Administrator, city managers and administrators, and special districts and 2) the Emergency Services Coordinators consisting of a public safety representative from each city.

In addition, should a disaster happen which involves national agencies, the EOC must be up and running and ready to help. For example, if the Alaska Airlines Flight 261 had continued on its flight path approximately 20 seconds longer, it would have crashed in SBC waters and Santa Barbara County would have been responsible for activating its EOC and coordinating resources to support response and recovery efforts. Our current facility, a small conference room in Fire Department Headquarters, would have been severely challenged. As it was, the plane crash occurred in Ventura County. Incident operations lasted over 50 days and included the response of over 70 agencies.



Currently, the Office of Emergency Services is housed at the Santa Barbara Fire Department Headquarters, 4410 Cathedral Oaks Road, Santa Barbara (Figure 2). An Emergency Operations Center (Figure 3) utilizes a small conference room of approximately 336 square feet with the potential to increase workspace by renting a 1600 square foot tent. If an emergency were to arise, extra time would be needed to rent the tent, transport it to the site, and set it up. Meanwhile, agencies would be arriving on the site and fire personnel would find their offices and desks commandeered, preventing the use of their own facilities. With no location to provide to the media as a communication center, the ability to get on with coordination of emergency activities is compromised. The conference room, which is to be the command center, also requires time to clear and get ready for setup of communication equipment for working the disaster. The situation is brightened by the availability of the mobile command unit from which six to eight people can work.

Figure 1. EOC Tent

Figure 2. Santa Barbara County Fire Department Headquarters

Figure 3. Current Santa Barbara County conference room (336 sq. feet)


Other Counties

Most counties and many cities throughout California, have a designated building to house their EOC. For example, Ventura County (Figure 4) has a permanent area in their County Government Complex. It is considerably larger than the conference room Santa Barbara is allowed to borrow and yet they are considering building an even more accommodating facility. Oakland has a complex (Figure 5) which is complete with state-of-the-art communication equipment allowing them to be responsive to any disaster immediately. The city of Santa Maria has a designated EOC building facility which is significantly larger than the Santa Barbara EOC conference room.

Figure 4. Some of the areas in the Ventura County EOC Facility located in their Government Center

Figure 5. City of Oakland EOC Facility

The Need

The Grand Jury became aware of the need for a permanent building when they saw the small conference room at the Santa Barbara County Fire Department Headquarters on Cathedral Oaks Road and realized the ramifications of setting up a tent after a disaster had occurred. The room would have to be cleared and reorganized from its day-to-day format in fire department operations. Setting up the tent includes setting up communications equipment, furniture, assigning locations for specialized staff, and media. All this is cumbersome when a facility is not already in place, especially when OES or media personnel arrive before the conference room or tent are set up.

Further, a tent structure might not be safe for use as a hub of communications. For example, after an earthquake the earth is unsettled, flooding can occur, and animals relocate themselves. A permanent building is needed that is ready to be used immediately after a disaster.

The Cost

The Office of Emergency Services has the opportunity to build an adequate facility utilizing land already owned by the County near the County Fire Department. Projected capital improvement costs are $3.807 million (Table 1) to build an adequate facility and install the appropriate communication and other necessary equipment. It would be a 24 hour facility which would be manned in an emergency around the clock to be the center to serve the community. It would have a designated room for media so that they may be facilitators in any operation, but not interfere with operations.

The Board of Supervisors has requested State funds to construct a building, but was denied funds three years ago. It was not even included in the State Budget Proposal Agenda in the last two years.

Table 1.


Preliminary design and engineering


Land acquisition 0
Construction 1,890,000
Communications equipment and supplies,
County fees and contingency



The 1999-2000 Grand Jury interviewed many personnel in the County Government who deal with disaster preparedness. The County has an excellent emergency preparedness plan (Multihazard Functional Plan) which is constantly being revised and updated. The Office of Emergency Services is currently located in the County Fire Department building on Cathedral Oaks Road. When a disaster strikes, the Office meets in a Conference room and/or sets up a temporary tent operation. This is inefficient and inadequate. The 1999-2000 Grand Jury is convinced that the County of Santa Barbara must build an earthquake-proof Emergency Operations Center which is permanent and ready at all times to meet any disaster that occurs, when it occurs.



Finding 1: The Office of Emergency Services borrows space from the County Fire Department and can set up a temporary tent when it needs to set up emergency operations.

Recommendation 1: The Board of Supervisors should fund a permanent facility for the EOC operations as soon as possible.



Office of Emergency Services
Finding 1
Recommendation 1

Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors
Finding 1
Recommendation 1

Santa Barbara County Administrator
Finding 1
Recommendation 1