By San Bernardino County Supervisor James Ramos.
A year has passed since the December 2, 2015 San Bernardino terrorist attack that targeted the employees of the county’s Environmental Health Services Division, and the impact on county employees and the organization has been profound.
Thirteen county employees and an Inland Regional Center worker were murdered that day by an apparently radicalized co-worker and his wife during a day-long training session and awards luncheon at the IRC, a non-county facility. Twenty other county employees were physically wounded, some quite severely. The other 38 employees who witnessed the attack are wounded emotionally to varying degrees in ways very few people who weren’t there can comprehend. Many of the survivors have not returned to work. Some are still recovering from gunshot wounds. Others just couldn’t bring themselves to return.
San Bernardino County owes a huge debt of gratitude to the counties of Contra Costa, Los Angeles, Marin, Orange, Riverside, San Luis Obispo and Ventura, who provided mutual aid support to the EHS division in the days, weeks and months following December 2, and to the counties who sent warm messages of support to wounded and grieving employees. The county still relies heavily on contract staff to fill the void left by employees who can’t yet return to work full-time or at all.
Something the county learned first-hand from this incident is that trauma affects everyone differently, and the effects of the attack extend far outside the four walls of the conference center where the attack took place. The EHS employees who did not attend the training that day are suffering from the sudden and violent loss of their friends and co-workers, as are the other people within county government who knew them or had once worked with them.
As soon as the county learned that its employees had been the target and accounted for virtually all of the deceased and wounded, the organization resolved to become completely employee-centric in all aspects of its operations. Everything the county does is looked at through the prism of how it will affect employees’ recovery. The county is careful about how it shares routine information, remaining constantly aware of triggers, such as news of a mass shooting elsewhere or an illustrated flyer promoting self-defense or active-shooter training. The county keeps professional trauma counselors on contract to be called in at a moment’s notice when necessary.
After asking the employees who were the targets of the attack whether they wanted to return to their previous workspace (they overwhelmingly said yes), the county completely remodeled it to remove anything that might remind them of the way it used to look, smell, and feel. The county even re-wrote its workers’ compensation form letters to make them more clear and compassionate. Much of this has been uncharted territory and there have been bumps along the way, but the county has tried to learn from its mistakes and improve its practices along the way.
The county was in the midst of an organization-wide security assessment on December 2. Although the attack took place at a non-county facility, the county has intensified efforts to examine and redesign workplaces to make them as secure as possible for employees and visitors.
The county is actively planning a physical memorial to those who were taken and all those affected. And the county is still encouraging people to donate to the San Bernardino United Relief Fund by texting SBUNITED to 71777.
There have been many lessons learned, and new challenges arise on a regular basis. Presently, the county is finding some of its employees frustrated with the workers’ compensation and how it doesn’t seem responsive to the needs of people who have experienced profound trauma. The county is making every effort to share its experiences with other organizations who might have to go through something like this someday.
James Ramos is a San Bernardino County Supervisor and is currently serving as the Chair of the Board.