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City’s new emergency communications chief hits the ground running

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Although San Francisco’s new chief of emergency communications has been quietly getting settled into her office for more than a week, she made her debut on Thursday in response to a series of early morning bomb scares.

Laura Phillips, who spent 10 years with Sunnyvale’s Department of Public Safety and has more than 25 years of emergency services experience overall, was hired to oversee The City’s Emergency Communications Department, which is responsible for 911 communications as well as facilitating efforts in the event of a natural disaster, terrorist attack or other city emergency.

Although the bomb threats were determined to be without merit, Phillips’ department, which works out of 1011 Turk Street, opened the Emergency Operation Center for several hours to coordinate the public safetyresponse.

Mayor Gavin Newsom called the scare, a "first real test," for Phillips, adding that she passed with flying colors.

"She did it magnificently, as if she had been there for literally months or years," said Newsom. "Even though many folks didn’t know her or hadn’t met her she was able to immediately generate some rapport and keep people at ease."

The hiring of Phillips in May came on the heels of an unfavorable audit of the Office of Emergency Services, which is within the Emergency Communications Department. The audit slammed Newsom’s OES appointee Annemarie Conroy, criticizing her lack of qualifications and experience. On the same day Newsom named Phillips as the new emergency chief, Supervisor Michela Alioto-Pier introduced a charter amendment that set a minimum level of 10-years experience for the job of OES directors: a bar that Phillip clears, but Conroy does not.

Board of Supervisor President Aaron Peskin, who had ordered the audit, done by the Budget Analyst Harvey Rose, said he had not yet met Phillips, but "her résumé looks good."

Under the official chain of command, Phillips will be responsible for the Office of Emergency Services. Peskin said "in practice" Conroy’s office has been allowed to operate separately, without that oversight.

"There has to be a clear chain of command," he said.

Newsom, while defending Conroy’s efforts during her first 18 months on the job as "tremendous progress," called Phillips "a great addition."

"She comes in with a fresh perspective and a different set of eyes," said Newsom. "She has no animus because ... of what was said in a committee hearing or something that was reported in a Harvey Rose audit."

Phillips was selected after an "exhaustive national search" according to city officials. The previous executive director resigned to take a post in the District Attorney’s office. The Emergency Communications Department has more than 230 employees and a budget of $69.4 million. Phillips will reportedly earn $175,000 a year.