The LAUSD Turns To Jill Barnes in an Emergency
The career of Jill Barnes, who on July 1st assumed her new position as Coordinator of Emergency Services for the Los Angeles Unified District, has been a blend of serendipity, restlessness, and ambition, with helpful moments of naiveté.
Take the time she signed up for a course in fire science at Santa Monica College. Like nature, Barnes, who was teaching literature at Marina Del Rey Middle School, abhors a vacuum. To fill the little bit of empty space in an already busy schedule, she decided to satisfy a curiosity about the field and enroll. During the semester, she learned about different kinds of roofs, tools, equipment -- and went through physical training, which included pulling water hose lines.
Some women may find this hard to believe, but Barnes swears it’s true: she didn’t realize until the first day of class that the other students would be men in their early 20s hoping to become firefighters. In retrospect, she said possessing such information would not have prevented her from taking the course, but she might have had some opening day jitters.
Yet being different – plus working hard and well -- has its advantages. Soon after the course had finished, the instructor encouraged Barnes to apply for a job with the Santa Monica Fire Department as its public information officer. At the time, Jill had taught for 12 years in the LAUSD, mostly literature, and was a current member of the faculty at Marina Del Rey Middle School. Although she liked teaching, the new position featured a perk that no school district could expect to match.
“I couldn’t turn down a job that came with its own fire engine,” explained Barnes. The fire department believed that a PIO should be familiar with its showcase mode of transportation, and provided a vehicle to Barnes for that purpose.
Barnes spent two years in the post, working with media on such crises as a plane crash near Santa Monica Airport with two fatalities and a man who died when while he touched off an explosion in a bomb shelter he had built. She would have continued with the department, but her position was eliminated during a budget crunch.
“I loved responding in emergencies,” said Barnes.
The discerning reader, noting the direction of this article, will record here the presence of serendipity and ambition. Before taking the course, Barnes had no reason to think that she had an abiding interest in emergency services. Now, however, the idea had been planted.
Her last day on the job, Barnes received a phone call from an officer with the Los Angeles Police Department who she had met months before. At that time, the person had suggested Barnes should apply to the force. Though flattered – the cutoff age is 40, and Barnes was 38 – she also was happy in her current post, and didn’t pursue the matter further.
But when that job ended, so did Barnes’ main reason for resisting the LAPD. She could have returned to teaching after being laid off, but instead she endured the seven-month training to become a police officer.
On the first day, she was genuinely surprised to see that she represented a different demographic than the other recruits. Barnes recalled that out of the 36 in her group, maybe five were women, none of them over 30. The men were all younger than her as well.
Today, some 10 years after successfully completing the training, the trim and fit Barnes looks like she could do it all over again. This is a woman, after all, who just two years ago entered – and finished – her first-ever marathon, running alongside a group of students in the Run LA program.
The training also uncovered a skill Barnes didn’t know she had. “I’d never held a gun in my life, but it turns out I’m a good shot,” she said.
Of all Barnes’ various professional achievements, graduating from the Police Academy in 2003 at the age of 38 ranks near the top of her list. “It really felt like an accomplishment,” she said. “It’s one of the things I’m most proud of.”
Barnes spent one year as a police officer, working 12-hour shifts out of a division in the west San Fernando Valley, miles from her home in the Culver City/Marina Del Rey area. The schedule presented a problem; Barnes’s two children were in high school at the time, and she would routinely go three or four days without seeing them. It was too much to ask of a mom who felt she needed to be present during a difficult, transitional period in her children’s lives.
Upon leaving the force, Barnes returned to teach at Marina Del Rey Middle School. Since she was a girl, Barnes loved literature, which was a critical factor in her decision to go into teaching after graduating from the University of Michigan. A voracious reader to this day, she lists Barbara Kingsolver, Alice Munro, and Ann Patchett among her favorite authors.
In the four years since Barnes had last been in the classroom, the U.S. Congress approved the act into law known as No Child Left Behind (NCLB), which emphasized student test scores as a measure of a school’s success. “When I came back, the culture in schools had changed because of NCLB,” recalled Barnes.
Another difference between her previous and present teaching experiences was that Barnes had learned much more about emergency services, and could assess with authority the plans and procedures adopted by schools. It is apparently not common for LAUSD teachers to have this level of knowledge about emergency preparedness. Barnes eventually contacted Bob Spears, who was then Coordinator of Emergency Services for the LAUSD, to offer her assistance.
Spears put Barnes to work creating and taping videos for the District’s television station KLCS on triage and search and rescue. Though still teaching, she was clearly moving toward another career change.
The inevitable occurred when Spears offered Barnes a job as manager of an $800,000 Readiness and Emergency Management for Schools grant from the federal government, starting in the fall of 2010. Barnes was tasked to write, produce, and serve as the on-air talent for some 25, 15-minute online courses teaching LAUSD employees about how to prepare for, and function during a wide range of emergency situations.
Throughout this process, Barnes worked very closely with Spears. At some point, she learned that her boss was planning to retire on June 30th of this year. “As soon as I heard that, I got interested in the possibility (of replacing Spears),” she said.
To anyone who saw how deeply involved Barnes has been in Emergency Services over the past 18 months, her being named to the position of Coordinator of Emergency Services could not have come as a surprise.
She has already established a list of priorities, including improving the policies and procedures for assisting students with disabilities in the event of an emergency; strengthening relationships with her counterparts at other government agencies; and developing better plans for building evacuation.
“The first thing is supporting whatever schools need,” noted Barnes.
In December, construction is scheduled to be completed on the LAUSD’s new Emergency Operations Center, which Barnes can see from the window of her 24th floor office. Currently, the center occupies a room at the Pico Boulevard headquarters of the LAUSD Police. Barnes will keep her same office while working with staff in the new location.
Barnes notes that the facility includes two rooms where exhausted operators can sleep in the event of a long-running crisis, and has excellent generator capacity.
Though Barnes’s days are plenty busy overseeing emergency services for the nation’s second-largest school district, which has more than 660,000 students as well as 1,200 schools and education centers. Restless as always, she is currently finishing her doctoral dissertation at UCLA in educational leadership.
Still, Barnes sees her latest position as the unexpected, but entirely logical career path marked by detours and u-turns.
“I really never thought I would have the chance to put all the pieces together,” she said.
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By: Tom Waldman
Posted: Aug. 6, 2012