Laguna Beach taps former advisor to Ethiopia for emergency management role

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Brendan Manning is emergency operations coordinator for Laguna Beach. Photo courtesy of Brendan Manning

Brendan Manning likely traveled farther than any other Laguna Beach city employee to take the critical emergency operations coordinator job.

Manning last served as a disaster management advisor with the U.S. Forest Service embedded with the National Disaster Risk Management Commission in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.

After completing his undergraduate studies at Ithaca College, Manning’s interest in living abroad motivated him to join the U.S Peace Corps. That assignment took him to Malawi when the Sub-Sahara African country was suffering acutely from the HIV and AIDS epidemic.

The lack of access to safe water hygiene and sanitation also created significant public health problems for the country. At one point, a storm washed out roads preventing people from getting to their health center.

“To see how people live and work and overcome the hardest of hardships and stay positive and embrace community—for me coming from rural New Hampshire—to live that for two and a half years was quite eye-opening,” Manning said.

After a six-month vacancy created by the departure of his predecessor Jordan Villwock, Manning steps into a key position for the Laguna Beach Police Department at a time city officials are managing the dual public safety threats posed by the coronavirus pandemic and another severe wildfire season.

Since starting his new job less than two weeks ago, Manning said he’s been tasked with getting up to speed on how to activate the city’s emergency operations center. He’s also been familiarizing himself with who to call on to get emergency assistance from regional, state, and federal agencies.

In 2012, Manning was serving as emergency services coordinator to Riverside County’s Emergency Management Department when a 5.5 earthquake and a swarm of smaller quakes hit the city of Brawley in Imperial County. As part of the state’s mutual aid system, he deployed to help evacuate coordinate the evacuation patients after power was knocked out at Pioneers Memorial Hospital.

He also helped manage resources deployed to fight wildfires in Riverside and San Diego counties during his two and a half years in that role.

The emergency operations coordinator role is very important for executing the Laguna Beach City Council’s vision for executing its 130-page Wildfire Mitigation and Safety Plan, Councilmember Sue Kempf said in a phone interview Wednesday.

“We welcome Brendan on board and look forward to getting him familiar with Laguna Beach and all of our challenges here,” Kempf said.

Unfortunately, many agencies conduct similar studies and then they sit on a shelf unused. In Laguna Beach, city officials are moving forward with a recommended traffic study of evacuation routes and new rules that will allow homeowners to more easily maintain fuel mitigation zones on private property. A proposal to construct a water reservoir capable of refilling firefighting helicopters mid-flight was delayed, partly because of the economic downturn.

“The commitment to fill this position in an economically unstable time shows the focus the City Council and the mayor has for emergency preparedness,” Manning said.

Laguna Beach presented an exciting opportunity because it already has a large group of residents that have involved themselves in the Community Emergency Response Team and Emergency and Disaster Preparedness Committee, Manning said.

“We have cheerleaders out in the community,” he said. “I think Laguna Beach is unique in that its community has a vested interest, shows it, and is very active.”

The job was also attractive for Manning because his wife grew up and has family here. After a three-year stay in Ethiopia, they were excited to bring their five-year-old daughter back to the U.S.

Laguna Beach Police Chief Laura Farinella wrote in an email that she’s extremely excited about Manning joining the public safety team.

“Brendan comes to us with a breadth of knowledge in emergency management, with a master’s degree in public health, and experience working at the local, county, and federal levels.” Farinella wrote. “Brendan’s experience in fields such as CERT management, fire-related disasters, and public health, made him a stand-out candidate. I know he will bring great ideas on how to best mitigate and respond to the disaster challenges in Laguna Beach.”

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