SLO County public safety officials call on public to assist them

Jim Petroni, a former emergency management coordinator for the Office of Emergency Services, speaks to his fellow panelists at the League of Women Voters’ “Safe in SLO” forum Wednesday.
Jim Petroni, a former emergency management coordinator for the Office of Emergency Services, speaks to his fellow panelists at the League of Women Voters’ “Safe in SLO” forum Wednesday. lholden@thetribunenews.com

San Luis Obispo County officials say residents should worry less about foreign terror and more about helping area law enforcement combat local threats.

Collaboration was the theme of “Safe in SLO: Strategies for a Changing World,” a Wednesday night forum hosted by the League of Women Voters of San Luis Obispo County. About 30 residents came to hear presentations from speakers including San Luis Obispo police Chief Deanna Cantrell, county Sheriff Ian Parkinson and county Superintendent of Schools James Brescia.

Jim Petroni, a former emergency management coordinator for the governor’s Office of Emergency Services, and Brian Sullivan, an FBI supervisory senior resident agent, also gave presentations.

All the panelists emphasized the extensive training that public safety officers undergo and the intensive planning the various agencies do to coordinate their efforts. Sullivan described his FBI office as being “wickered,” or woven in with a network of other law enforcement groups.

Cantrell recalled the January city bus bomb threat, which took place during her early days on the job, at a time when the San Luis Obispo police needed help from other public safety leaders. Police had to shut down the city’s buses for a day in order to sweep every vehicle for explosives.

Cantrell said the incident quickly exhausted her department’s resources, which required her to call on other agencies for help. No one was hurt in the incident and a Cal Poly student was later taken into custody after allegedly making statements about bombs on city buses.

Authorities learned of the threats when a bus passenger, a Cal Poly student, reported the situation to campus police and the information was forwarded to the city police department. Cantrell noted that information from the public is critical in helping her officers keep residents safe.

“We can’t do it alone,” Cantrell said. “The community needs to be our eyes and ears in so many ways.”

Petroni said emergency management includes three phases — pre-incident preparation, officials’ response to the emergency and the community’s recovery. Although most members of the public only consider emergency preparedness during an incident, he said, officials make plans far in advance.

“There is a system that’s getting better and better all the time,” Petroni said.

Acts of terrorism, like the recent Brussels bombings, don’t happen very frequently in the United States, Petroni said. He said members of the public can keep themselves safe by recognizing the significance of their own actions and alerting law enforcement to potentially dangerous situations.

Questions from the audience included concerns about cybersecurity and the vetting of Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant employees.

Sullivan addressed cybersecurity, and said attendees should be on the lookout for threats such as credit card skimmers at gas stations and ATMs.

Cory George, PG&E nuclear security performance and compliance supervisor, said all Diablo Canyon employees go through multiple background checks before being hired. They remain under almost constant behavioral observation by employers and must take random drug and alcohol tests, he said.

George said Diablo Canyon also makes use of an extensive security system, including fences, cameras and armed guards near the outside of the facility and biometric scanners, identification badges and layers of entrances inside.

Attendee Nisha Abdul Cader said she thought the event was “amazing,” and was impressed with the panelists’ comments.

“I thought this was very timely to see we are a very prepared community,” she said.

To learn more about San Luis Obispo County emergency preparedness, visit www.slocounty.ca.gov/OES or call the Office of Emergency Services at 781-5011.