Wreck Increases Calls to Retain Disaster Office

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The derailment Sunday of a train carrying hazardous chemicals near Ventura has intensified a call to spare the county sheriff's office of emergency services from budget cuts.

For the past few weeks, a group that includes ambulance drivers and chemical company executives has urged the Board of Supervisors to continue funding the four-person agency that coordinates disaster relief services in the county.

The office is scheduled to close under a budget plan approved earlier this month by the supervisors.

The derailment, which spilled toxic chemicals and forced the evacuation of 300 residents, is a prime example of why the agency is needed, said Stephen Frank, president of Ojai Ambulance Service.

"You only see their work when you are given the scenario that we have today," said Frank, who is also president of the Ventura County Ambulance Assn.

Assistant Sheriff Richard Bryce agreed. "What better example can you have than the situation we have today," he said. "It's a perfect example of why the Board of Supervisors needs to retain the office."

Soon after the train derailed, three workers from the office of emergency services went to the accident scene and began to coordinate shelter, food and medical services for firefighters and evacuees, said Karen Guidi, program administrator.

She said her agency notified the Red Cross that shelter was needed for some evacuated residents and for emergency crews that stayed through the night. The office of emergency services also ordered food and water for firefighters and cleanup crews and established a communication command post for county agencies, she said.

Under state law, each county must name a coordinator of emergency services, Guidi said. However, state law does not require the degree of coordination offered by the sheriff's four-person office of emergency services.

The future of the office of emergency services was placed in jeopardy when the Board of Supervisors adopted a preliminary budget this month that calls for a 5% cut in each department.

The cuts are needed to help erase a $13.6 million deficit in the fiscal year that began July 1. The supervisors will adopt the final budget during a series of hearings next month.

At the Sheriff's Department, a 5% cut would mean eliminating 49 deputy positions and closing the Rose Valley Work Camp and the office of emergency services, according to Sheriff John V. Gillespie. The emergency services budget is $204,400 a year.

"We are optimistic that we can work something out," Bryce said.

Supervisor Maggie Erickson Kildee said she is also hopeful that the supervisors can balance the budget without having to close the office.

"I think the office of emergency services is very important," she said.

She said that of all the proposed budget cuts, elimination of the office of emergency services has raised the most protest.

Among those who have protested are Roger Newton, plant manager for OxyChem in Oxnard, a subsidiary of Occidental Chemical Corp.

In an interview, Newton said the agency has played a key role in coordinating public emergency services with the efforts of private industry.

"We think it's good to work with the county on this," he said. "By having closer working relationships it is less likely that an emergency will get out of hand."

Steve Murphy, chief administrative officer for Pruner Health Services, an ambulance service based in Thousand Oaks, also wrote to the supervisor.

"We feel that public safety should be the number one priority of the Board of Supervisors," he wrote.

Murphy, president of the California Ambulance Assn., said in an interview Monday that the train derailment is a good example of why the county agency should be retained.

A medical supervisor from his company was called by the office of emergency services to oversee medical services at the accident site, Murphy said.

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