By Mark Gutglueck
The lackluster response of the multiple state and governmental agencies to the challenges of the February and March blizzard conditions in San Bernardino County’s mountain communities was in large measure a reflection of the lack of timely reaction and dearth of emergency management training, experience, and education by the county deputy executive officer overseeing the San Bernardino County Office of Emergency Services and his failure to coordinate with the county’s chief executive officer in getting equipment, supplies and manpower in place, sources familiar with the county’s managerial echelon and its emergency protocol have told the Sentinel.
What came about over the last week-and-a-half of February and into the second week of March had its roots in County Executive Officer Leonard Hernandez’s penchant for promoting into the county’s top managerial posts individuals loyal to him rather than those whose demonstrated competence would otherwise have qualified them for department leadership positions, according to several middle- and high-ranking county employees.
In the instant case of what is now referred to as the Blizzard of ’23, Assistant County Executive Officer Daniel Muñoz’s understanding and functional familiarity with the county’s so-called FAST Plan, meant to provide a blueprint of the emergency response to a whole host of anticipated weather disasters that could beset the county, was at best sketchy, according to those who have worked with him in the county’s two primary emergency response divisions. As a consequence of that, it appears, Muñoz for ten days failed to trigger a set of prearranged procedures in response to what were deteriorating weather conditions and then a fully manifested weather system.In response to a series of fires and a few near disasters, San Bernardino County in 1992 undertook to expand its own office of emergency services, a division of county government intended to engage in contingency preparation for any of a host of catastrophic conditions that could beset the county, including fires and weather related events such as flooding, extreme heat and cold, interminable rain, snowstorms, blizzards, avalanches, drought, derailments, airplane accidents and terrorist attacks among other dire developments.
Previously, in 1982, owing to the entanglement of longtime Sheriff Frank Bland in scandals involving pilfering from the department’s undercover operations fund and association with the region’s prostitution industry, the county had sought to redress a situation in which the sheriff was being remunerated at a salary level below that of the undersheriff, assistant sheriff, deputy chiefs, captains and lieutenants with seniority in his department by designating whoever was serving as sheriff as the county chief safety officer, which made him his department’s top earner. By 2001, the sheriff had been subjected to several pay boosts, such that maintaining the figurehead fiction of his title as the county chief safety officer was no longer necessary and the position and pay for being chief county safety officer was dispensed with.
Instead, the county revamped its authority lines with the creation of the office of emergency services, transferring what had previously been the sheriff’s duty to oversee countywide emergency response to an individual specifically charged with overseeing the county’s emergency services office. Under the ordinance establishing the office of emergency services, it is an independent stand-alone entity that does not fall under the authority of any one department, though for a time initially after its creation it maintained a direct operational connection with the sheriff’s department and then later was affiliated with the fire department for budgetary purposes such that the fire department had nominal control of its functions.
In the first several years of its existence, the San Bernardino County Office of Emergency Services made relatively decent progress in establishing the basis, both physical and conceptual, for its operations.
An earnest effort at devising a comprehensive emergency management program was initiated, beginning with a cataloging of all of the recognized hazards the county and its residents face. A set of procedures and protocols for all of the emergencies that could be conceived of were written and compended in binders.
Simultaneously, an effort was made to tap into federal and state funding, which brought with it a need to comply with those governmental entities’ mandated programs, which of themselves formed the basis of much of the office’s activities and preparations.
Central to the office’s function was the adoption of the California Standardized Emergency Management System, known by its acronym SEMS; development of the National Incident Command System, known by its acronym NIMS; the county’s formulation of its own incident command system, consisting of further procedural specifications; along with the physical establishment of an emergency operations center, with all of its attendant communications, dispatch and informational processing mechanisms and apparatus. Inventories were made of existing equipment, supplies and resources for use in emergency response that were available through all of the county’s departments. Where obvious gaps were noted, acquisitions were made, as with the purchase of 30 mass care and shelter trailers containing the makings of emergency shelters, which were dispersed to various locations around the 20,105-square mile county so those shelters could be established at short notice as urgency might dictate. Many other projects, all with federal grant funds, were developed and implemented.
As forward-looking, energetic and dynamic as the office of emergency services programs were, they have been plagued by a succession of missteps the county’s leadership engaged in when choosing an individual to oversee the office.
Denise Benson, who had previously been employed by the county as a staff analyst in the land use services division, then as a manager in Land Use Services and a staff analyst in the County Administrative Office as well as in the office of former Third District Supervisor Barbara Cram Riordan before moving into a position in the fire department’s administration, was appointed to serve as the first head of the Office of Emergency Services. At that point, the office was organizationally part of the fire department, and Benson was given the title of division manager, such that she had division chief horns on her uniform.
Bensen did what was deemed by most of those in the know to have done a good job of hiring people who were competent and who had the correct skills to serve as emergency services officers. On the downside, however, she had a tendency to micromanage and was parsimonious in giving praise or credit to her staff, which over time led to excessive turnover of staff both professional and clerical. While she earned high marks for guiding the foundation and start-up of the office which was well ordered on paper, the less than sterling performance of the office starting in 1999 during actual disasters damaged her. After a series of problems, including very high turnover of professional staff, allegations of employment rights violations of Title 7, Sections 1983 and 1984 of the US Code, allegations of fiscal mismanagement and poor communications with the fire department administration, she was suspended from duty with pay while she was under investigation, and forbidden to talk with anyone at the office of emergency services.
Benson was replaced on an interim basis by the office’s assistant manager and Benson’s second-in-command, Cindy Serrano.
The assistant fire chief told Serrano to run the office of emergency services as if she was the de facto manager. Serrano, however, was hesitant to make any decisions on her own, and deferred them to when Benson would return. Benson never came back, however, and because of Serrano’s indecisiveness, she was never seriously considered as a replacement for Benson, who “retired.”
Ultimately, in August of 2012, Michael Antonucci, the former Upland Fire Chief, was hired as the office of emergency services manager. Given his extensive experience in fire department and related emergency operations, Antonucci did yeoman’s service in his role as the overseer of the county’s emergency response to catastrophic or near-catastrophic events, at least for a time.
Meanwhile, Muñoz, who early in his time as a county employee in the 1990s worked in the department of human services, colloquially referred to as the welfare office, first as an eligibility worker and then later as an analyst, had been shuffled into what was then the county department of human services’ emergency management division, where he was given what his contemporaries in the county described as a “do nothing” assignment or job. While he did write some emergency plans for the human services department, he was not part of the San Bernardino County Office of Emergency Services or a member of the emergency operations center response staff.
Muñoz would subsequently transfer from the department of human services to the office of emergency services, where after a short time as an emergency service officer he was promoted into one of the two supervising emergency service officer positions.
Remarkably, however, because his initial orientation to emergency services had taken place in the far less formalistic setting of the department of human services, Muñoz had only a vague and limited familiarity with the California Standardized Emergency Management System, the development of the National Incident Command System, the incident command system the county had established for itself, and that system’s checklists, procedures and protocols. Toward the end of Antonucci’s time with the county, Muñoz, at the behest of Leonard Hernandez, who was then the county’s chief operating officer, was promoted into the assistant manager of the Office of Emergency Services post.
Throughout much of its existence, issues of bureaucratic imperfection have dogged the San Bernardino County Office of Emergency Services.
When the fire department had nominal control of the office of emergency services and its budget, to fill funding gaps in the fire department’s sphere of operations, transferences of funding that was supposed to be earmarked for emergency operations, including federal and state grant money for local police and fire departments, was utilized for county fire department functions rather than those explicitly intended for emergency operations. After such occurrences, sometimes well after them, office of emergency services staff, conscious that a state or federal audit might catch the misappropriation or in order to meet routine fiscal obligations, would sound a protest and the money would be begrudgingly put back into the office’s operating budget.
Serrano, like Benson, found herself tripped up with regard to subordinate employees’ complaints of civil rights/employment abuses. She was reprimanded and told to take a remedial class. When she dragged her feet on completing the class, she was given the option of early retirement in lieu of firing.
Zack Mullennix, a volunteer communications specialist with the emergency communications service, had transitioned into one of the emergency services officer posts, from which it appeared his prospects of promotion might have put him on track to eventually become the emergency services manager. Indeed, he was given a promotion to supervising emergency services officer. When the county closed down the High Desert Emergency Operations Center, some equipment went missing, which was used as a reason for terminating Mullennix.
Some seven years into Antonucci’s tenure as office of emergency services manager, Muñoz’s ambition had him chomping at the bit. He had his sights set on becoming the manager of the office of emergency services. Two factors favored him in his aspiration.
He was a close personal friend of Leonard Hernandez, who had been promoted to the position of county chief operating officer in 2017 and in 2020 was elevated to the county’s top staff position, county chief executive officer.
Antonucci had a vulnerability that only those close to him could recognize. He was living in constant pain, the aftereffect of a back injury he had suffered earlier in his career. While he could summon up enough intensity to function as the county’s head of emergency services, dealing with the rigors of that job, a bad back and an underhanded effort by his chief subordinate to dislodge him from his post would present for him an intractable span of control challenge.
Beginning in 2019, Muñoz and Hernandez began to engineer a coup d’ etat, one aimed at moving Antonucci out and bringing Muñoz in.
Ultimately, Hernandez succeeded in elevating Muñoz to the position of deputy executive officer, a position in which he is, on the county’s organizational chart, directly answerable to the chief of administration, Pamela Williams. Muñoz’s two areas of authority are ICEMA, the Inland Counties Emergency Medical Agency, and the San Bernardino County Office of Emergency Services.
Muñoz’s promotion, and the bureaucratic maneuvering that led to it, took a number of people aback. Not the least of those was Antonucci, who filed a lawsuit over what he said was his wrongful termination as the manager of the office of emergency services.
Others, including those who worked in the office of emergency services, were perplexed at what they considered Hernandez’s risky move to install Muñoz in a position many did not consider Muñoz qualified for nor capable of handling.
In particular, it was noted, despite Muñoz having served more than a decade-and-a-half in the office of emergency services, he had not completed certain basic courses and training relating to the provision of such service.
Muñoz’s elevation, however, matches in certain regards other such promotions that have taken place in the years while Hernandez has been in the capacity of chief operating officer and now chief executive officer. Hernandez puts a higher premium, the Sentinel has been told by multiple sources, on loyalty than on competence.
In the case of shunting Antonucci aside and replacing him with Muñoz, part of calculation on the part of both Hernandez and Muñoz was that filling the gap in the assistant manager post created with Muñoz’s promotion to manager by a truly knowledgeable emergency management professional would ensure that the office would be able to function under any challenge that was likely to come its way. Initially, the Sentinel is told, Hernandez and Muñoz sought to plug that gap with a probation department employee with management experience. After the probation manager was in place for eight months, he returned to the probation department.
Fortuitously, at least for a time, Hernandez and Muñoz were able to hire as Muñoz’s second-in-command, Michael Ramirez, a supervising emergency services officer and a capable and knowledgeable personage with a practical mastery of the California Standardized Emergency Management System, the National Incident Command System and the county’s own incident command system. Ramirez was given the title of acting assistant office of emergency services manager.
At the same time, however, it appears that Hernandez and Muñoz ignored entirely other gaps within the office’s staffing. Instead of having a full complement of eight emergency service officers, there were only four. What is more, of those four, two devote the primary percentage, if not all, of their function to emergency preparation and emergency operations in the cities of Fontana and Upland, which contract with the county for the provision of their emergency service officers. Thus, the county had for the entirety of its land mass – an area equal to the square mileage of New Jersey, Connecticut, Delaware and Rhode Island combined – essentially two emergency services officers. This is exacerbated by the consideration that the two supervising emergency services officers – whose positions on the office organizational chart are supposed to be in between the assistant manager position and the eight officer positions – are unfilled and have been unfilled for some time.
As it would turn out, their gamble with the safety of the county’s residents, would play Hernandez and Muñoz wrong.
Just a fortnight before the onset of the blizzard, Ramirez, dismayed with the way in which the office was being neglected and the ethos by which loyalty was being rewarded over competence, resigned as the county’s assistant emergency services manager for other employment. At that point, the only thing standing between disaster and the people of the mountain communities of San Bernardino County was Daniel Muñoz.
Things did not fare well.
Despite his position as the head of the San Bernardino County Office of Emergency Services and the Inland Counties Emergency Medical Agency, Muñoz had no knowledge of what the county’s pre-disaster protocol and procedure was.
In this day and age, the National Weather Service generally is able to make accurate predictions of weather systems roughly seven days in advance.
The county’s comprehensive emergency management program for weather related issues is contained within what is referred to as the Flood Areas Safety Task Force Plan, which, despite its name, covers all order of emergency weather contingencies, not just flooding. There is a checklist contained within the Flood Areas Safety Task Force Plan, referred to in governmental parlance by the acronym FAST, relating to the procedure to prepare for an extreme weather event.
Upon learning that a major weather-related event is in the offing, the county office of emergency services director/county assistant chief executive officer, in this case Muñoz, being armed with information from the National Weather Service, is to convene a conference call with the county chief executive officer, sheriff, fire chief, county public works director, Caltrans regional representative, California Office of Emergency Services representative, local CHP commander, relevant city managers and utility company representatives to size up the anticipated circumstance and begin formulating a planned action of response and then, 24 hours later, reconvene to make a tentative outline of the response, whereupon the county chief executive officer applies for authorization from the board of supervisors to begin acquiring equipment, supplies, manpower etc. to initiate the response. An emergency meeting of the board of supervisors is then supposed to be convened, probably within 24 hours, to give the county chief executive officer that spending authorization.
The National Weather Service gave an indication on February 15 that a major weather front was going to converge on Southern California beginning as early as February 21.
The first of the succession of events that entailed this year’s mountain blizzard started on February 22. The board of supervisors did not conduct an emergency meeting relating to the blizzard until March 1. It appears that either Muñoz, who under the county’s emergency management protocol should have initiated a conference call on February 16, temporized in holding the by-phone conference until February 28. The media were not alerted to the emergency meeting pertaining to the blizzard that took place on March 1 at 2:45 p.m. until after 1:30 p.m. on March 1.
At that meeting, the board of supervisors confirmed Hernandez’s proclamation of a local emergency, expediting the provision of county resources, services and expenditures to render assistance as needed and ensure the health and welfare of the residents of the impacted areas during the emergency. That included endeavoring to give the public and first responders access to necessary infrastructure such as grocery stores, gas stations, utilities and public infrastructure.
The board of supervisors proclaimed the conditions in the mountains, which it marked as having commenced on February 22, 2023, constituted an emergency pursuant to Public Contract Code section 22050, requiring immediate action to prevent or mitigate the loss or impairment of life, health, property, and essential public services, which would not permit the delay resulting from a formal competitive solicitation of bids to procure construction services for projects necessary to prevent or address the effects of the storm. In accordance with that finding, the board approved a resolution authorizing the county purchasing agent, subject to Hernandez’s approval, to issue purchase orders and/or contracts in a total amount not to exceed $20 million for any emergency construction and modifications related to the effects of the storm, and find that the issuance of those purchase orders and/or contracts was necessary to respond to the emergency.
Last week, the Sentinel addressed several questions to Muñoz by email.
The Sentinel asked Muñoz on what date he convened the first conference call involving Leonard Hernandez, Sheriff Shannon Dicus, County Fire Chief Dan Munsey, County Public Works Director Brendon Biggs, California Department of Transportation Division 8 Director John Bulinski, local California Highway Patrol Commander Napoleon Salais, Big Bear Lake City Manager Erik Sund and representatives with the California Office of Emergency Services and utility companies and what date he convened the second, or follow-up, conference call involving the same individuals.
The Sentinel asked why the special meeting of the board of supervisors at which Hernandez was given the not-to-exceed $20 million spending authorization had not been held much earlier than March 1, seven days after the onset of the storm in the mountains.
The Sentinel asked Muñoz why the initial conference call and its follow-up were not convened until after the onset of the blizzard and why they could not have been conducted as early as February 16 or 17, immediately after or shortly after word of the impending storm was available from the National Weather Service.
The Sentinel asked Muñoz if the departure of Michael Ramirez as assistant emergency services manager hurt the county’s readiness level and ability to deal with the blizzard challenge.
The Sentinel asked Muñoz if the shortage of emergency services officers inhibited the office of emergency services’ function during the recent blizzard.
Muñoz did not respond to the Sentinel’s inquires.
Word has now reached the Sentinel that one of the county’s emergency services officers has resigned and that now only three of the county’s eight emergency services officer positions are filled with both of the emergency services supervising officer positions unfilled along with a vacancy in the assistant emergency services manager post.
By Mark Gutglueck