Christopher Godley has been named Sonoma County’s interim emergency manager, stepping into the role recently vacated by a former official who faced criticism over the county’s failure to send more widespread public alerts during the firestorm last year.
Godley’s appointment was announced by county officials Tuesday, though he began work on Monday. A Santa Rosa resident, he brings to his new assignment more than two decades of related experience, having been San Jose’s emergency management director from 2010 to 2013 and before that serving as Marin County’s emergency services manager and the deputy emergency services coordinator in Sonoma County for many years.
Godley, 53, most recently worked for the engineering firm Tetra Tech as director of emergency management and also advised Santa Rosa officials in the October fires’ aftermath, officials said.
In his interim role, he is working as a contractor through Tetra Tech, which the county is paying $6,000 a week, according to his boss, Jim Colangelo, the interim director of the fire and emergency services department.
“I’m very happy about this,” Colangelo said of Godley. “He’s got an incredible amount of experience ... It’s great to have another hand on deck.”
The county is retaining Godley on an initial two-month contract that will likely be extended, Colangelo said. The county plans to launch a national search to fill the emergency manager job on a long-term basis, but that process won’t begin in earnest until after officials make progress on determining the future staffing levels and organizational structure of the emergency services division, according to Colangelo.
The previous emergency manager, Christopher Helgren, was reassigned in mid-February to a different county government job. But he retired effective Monday, a county spokeswoman said Tuesday.
The Press Democrat reported last year that Helgren, 56, had in 2016 ruled out using Amber Alert-style cellphone messages during local disasters over concerns they couldn’t be targeted to an area smaller than the whole county. A recent review from the state Office of Emergency Services — released after he was reassigned — faulted Helgren’s decision, describing it as “influenced by a limited awareness and understanding” of the system and based on “outdated information” regarding its technical abilities.
Helgren and emergency coordinator Zachary Hamill also were at an out-of-town conference when the firestorm erupted, two days after the National Weather Service issued a red-flag warning for extreme fire risk over the weekend. Supervisors and County Administrator Sheryl Bratton have publicly questioned that decision and said in the future they would seek to ensure emergency officials remain in the area during such warnings.
As the new interim emergency manager, Godley’s priorities will include leading the county’s efforts to develop a community emergency warning program in partnership with other local agencies and members of the public, officials said.
Godley will also study different staffing models for the emergency services division in advance of providing a recommendation to the Board of Supervisors sometime in the coming months. The division is currently housed under Fire and Emergency Services, overseen by the County Administrator’s Office. Supervisors are considering whether to move it elsewhere, perhaps under the Sheriff’s Office.
Should another major disaster arise during Godley’s tenure, he said he’d seek to warn residents as much as possible, including through the Wireless Emergency Alerts system the county didn’t use in October.