In cases of emergency in San Luis Obispo County, Ron Alsop describes his role as kind of a band conductor that makes sure everyone in charge of public safety is reading the same music.
Alsop has been with the Office of Emergency Services since 1990 and has acted as manager since 2007, working to coordinate dozens of agencies to protect the public in the face of earthquakes and wildfires, and preparing for a less common consideration for people in his role: the possibility of radiation release from the Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant.
He, along with a group of mainstays in county government, will be retiring in the next few weeks, marking the end of an era for a handful of county departments.
Over the years, Alsop has lost sleep at night from the pressure and responsibility of protecting the lives of the residents of a county he moved to nearly 50 years ago, on the day of the first moon landing in 1969.
But worry of hazardous nuclear radiation isn’t what keeps him restless at night.
“I don’t foresee anything at Diablo that would cause a big problem. It would be a huge public information challenge for rumor control, that’s going to be the biggest challenge. ... My biggest concern is earthquakes and wildland fires,” Alsop said in a Friday afternoon phone conversation.
In an earthquake, his first concern is Lopez Dam and then highways and freeways. The dam isn’t considered a threat itself, but “if it were full and it failed, there are some considerable challenges related to Lopez Dam” — specifically, a wall of water that would quickly cause major problems on Highway 101 and in Arroyo Grande in general.
Much of the county is at high risk for wildfire, too. As large, disastrous record-breaking fires swept through California in recent years, Alsop watched and learned.
“What we’re really learning is we really need to stay on top of it in terms of public notification,” Alsop said. That means, it’s better to notify people as soon as possible even if officials have to roll back the warning instead of sending alerts too late.
That’s becoming easier with a wireless emergency alert system that sends a 90-character warning to people in areas of pending disaster. In the case of an emergency, an official can pull up a map and draw a line around where they want to evacuate and send an immediate message to everyone with a cell phone in that area.
That system was used for the first time in SLO County during the Chimney Fire in 2016, and Alsop was nervous.
“I was holding my breath because we accidentally set it off when we first got the system,” he said, adding that they were never able to test it before needing to use it to evacuate the north shore of Nacimiento during the fire.
Natural disasters are a concern to counties across the state. But not everyone has the risk of a nuclear facility on its shores.
The county has done a tremendous amount of emergency preparedness work around Diablo Canyon — performing drills, writing and updating a 175-emergency response plan and maintaining operating procedures for more than 50 agencies like the San Luis Coastal Unified School District, Port San Luis and Pismo Beach. Because of that work, people in the county should know as soon as possible whether they need to evacuate.
All that training and funding provided by PG&E has placed the county in a strong position to respond to emergencies. Agencies in this county know how to work together, Alsop said.
That was put to the test during the 2003 San Simeon Earthquake.
From memory, Alsop recalled that the earthquake happened at 11:15 a.m. and the emergency operation center was activated by 11:44 a.m. Soon after, he picked up a “red phone,” which allows Cal Poly, the California Highway Patrol, all seven cities and other officials to talk to each other.
That’s when they discovered Paso and Atascadero were hard hit, and he launched the coordination of a full-throttle emergency response.
What Alsop does worry about, what makes him lose sleep at night, is that he will somehow mess up.
“I worry about doing something wrong or making a mistake or something failing because of us, more than any particular threat. I don’t have a fear of any particular disaster. My fear is if we do an oops that causes harm for others,” Alsop said.
Alsop believes in civil service. Before he worked for the Office of Emergency Services, he worked for Cal Fire as a seasonal firefighter, paid-call firefighter, and then in fire prevention for 13 years. He was recently recognized for a total of 41 years of outstanding service to residents and visitors of San Luis Obispo County.
From his office in the County Government Center on Monterey Street, Alsop can see the site of the old Greyhound Bus station where his dad was a driver, the lights from the field where he was a student at San Luis High School, the tops of the dorms at Cal Poly where he studied, and French Hospital Medical Center where he got his hand sewn up after he cut it on a glass that broke while doing dishes as a teenager.
He loves this county, he said, and he plans to stay here at his home in Atascadero.
When he does take his final walk out of the office, he will do so knowing he didn’t “do an oops.”
Taking his place on Jan. 7 is Joe Guizzardi, a Cal Poly graduate who worked in the Santa Barbara County Office of Emergency Management and more recently as emergency manager for Santa Clara County Fire Department.
Other civil servants retiring at the end of the year include:
▪ Auditor-Controller-Treasurer-Tax Collector-Public Administrator Jim Erb, who spearheaded a monthly property tax payment system, instituted the county’s Whistleblower Hotline and demonstrated vision and leadership on cannabis regulations and authored the new “Erb Tax.”
▪ Buyer Phill Haley✓ with Countywide Purchasing, credited with saving taxpayers $823,097 in fiscal year 2017-18 alone.
▪ Deputy Director of Public Works Mark Hutchinson, described as a CEQA Jedi who mastered the art of environmental document preparation and holds an encyclopedia of knowledge on county history.
▪ Assistant County Counsel Tim McNulty, lauded for his strong work ethic and ability to work well with colleagues, while developing expertise in planning and land-use law and zealously representing the county.
▪ Undersheriff Tim Olivas, who established a panic button and protocol to help schools respond to emergencies, provided training to officers on the use of force, and helped establish the county Stepping Up Initiative to improve mental health services in jail.