Fire and emergency preparedness
Posted: June 10, 2019
It’s 100 degrees in Santa Rosa as I write this, and 48 hours ago we had our first Red Flag Warning of this very new fire season.
Are we ready?
Nearly two years have passed since the devastating wildfires of October 2017 ravaged Sonoma County, killing 22 people and destroying 5,300 homes. The total insured loss from just the Tubbs Fire — at the time the most destructive wildfire in California history — was more than $10 billion. That record of destruction has since been surpassed twice, by the huge Ranch Fire, the largest wildfire in state history, and the deadly Camp Fire, which obliterated the city of Paradise.
Sonoma County certainly was not ready for what happened on the night of Oct. 8-9 two years ago. An after-action review of the county’s Public Alert and Warning Program by the California Office of Emergency Services (CalOES) provided plenty of criticism, notably pointed at the decision made months before the fire to NOT use the Wireless Emergency Alert system (often identified as “Amber Alert”) to warn residents of approaching danger.
The review also noted other shortfalls, including information gaps that hampered the distribution of emergency resources to fight the fires or aid the evacuations, a lack of situational awareness that clouded the vision of emergency managers who had no clear idea of the scope of the impending disaster and the absence of coordinated decision-making among the many agencies responding to the emergency.
Fingers have been pointed; blame has been assigned. I don’t have any interest in revisiting questions about who is responsible for the failures on that terrible night. But all of us should be interested in what is done to make sure we do better next time. Lives depend on those decisions.
Now, nearly two years after the fires, many residents continue to wonder what happens next time. Do you, for instance, know how you will be notified of an evacuation order for your neighborhood in the event of a fire bearing down on you? Do you know what you should do in an evacuation, where you should go, and what route you should take to get there?
These are not just rhetorical questions. Sonoma County has four ways to notify residents of an emergency or an evacuation. SoCoAlerts, which can send telephone messages, texts or emails, and Nixle, which can send texts to cell phones. Unfortunately, these only work if you “opt-in” to the service before an emergency strikes. The other two are the national Emergency Alert System, which interrupts radio and television broadcasts and cable networks; and Wireless Emergency Alerts, which most people think of as “Amber Alerts,” sending an audible warning and text message to cell phones within a specific geographic area.
Emergency professionals generally agree that Wireless Emergency Alerts (WEA) are the most effective of the four. The capability is built in to every new cell phone, and must be deliberately disabled to turn it off. It reaches anyone with a cell phone in the area, a critical element in a region that draws so many tourists. It also “wakes up” a phone that has been set to silent mode.
CalOES recommended in its review that WEA be used by Sonoma County for “all critical public alert and warnings” in the future. County emergency managers have vowed to “over-alert” in the event of impending disaster in the future, rather than the “under-alert” of 2017. These changes are welcome, but they need to be better publicized, so every resident knows what to expect in the event of fire, flood, earthquake or other emergency.
The review also recommends that SoCoAlert and Nixle either be better coordinated, or reduced to a single opt-in system. Unfortunately, during the fires SoCoAlert had a wildly inconsistent success rate (ranging from some messages reaching 2 percent of intended recipients and others reaching 98 percent), and the “emergency” value of Nixle has been diluted by its frequent use to warn of community events, road closures and other non-emergency situations. Both remain in use separately and are encouraged by emergency managers.
And while we try to figure out the intricacies of a high-tech warning system, many in the community still wonder why we don’t have an analog solution — specifically, pole-mounted sirens. Emergency professionals warn that sirens may not be the solution because of the prevalence of well-insulated homes with double-pane windows, the inability of the hearing-impaired population to hear them and their limited range in hilly, wooded areas. There’s also the question of who wants one near their home when it needs to be regularly tested, and what kind of outreach will be done to make sure residents know what they should do when it is activated.
But where is this discussion taking place, other than the Letters to the Editor section? Yes, the county and the city of Santa Rosa have applied for federal funds for sirens, but again — where is the public discussion about how or if they will be deployed in Sonoma County?
Likewise, discussions are taking place out of the public eye regarding Joint Powers Agreements — legal entities formed by combining the resources of different levels of government — to coordinate the resources of Sonoma County and its nine cities for disaster preparation and emergency response, as well as to create new ways to approach vegetation management to reduce fire risks.
These are all worthy tasks. But they need wider participation from, and outreach to, the general public. Sonoma County residents deserve greater education about how to prepare and respond to red flag warnings, how to respond to evacuation orders, and what routes to take in the event of an evacuation. PG&E has plans to shut down power delivery in critical risk situations, but do the people who rely on that power really understand what that means and how they should respond when the lights go out?
We are nearly two years removed from the fires, and there’s no doubt that public officials and public employees continue to work with a sense of urgency on response and recovery. But that urgency no longer is conveyed to the general public — and it should be.