It was not luck that more people weren't injured or killed during the fall 2007 Southern California fires. Officials evacuated more than 500,000 people in an orderly manner, and provided shelter for more than 20,000, both numbers that far exceeded anything done during previous fires.

During the 2003 blazes, 15 people died and just 56,000 were evacuated. Some residents never got notices to evacuate, and that's not surprising considering the magnitude of the fires, the available manpower and the methods used for evacuation, which consisted of law enforcement personnel knocking on doors and notifying residents from loudspeakers.

Officials there invested in two mass notification systems just prior to the 2007 fires, and those are being credited with saving lives. As many as seven people may have perished because of the 2007 fires, but it could have been much worse if not for the two alerting systems and the collaboration of agencies.

"There's not doubt in anyone's mind that the reverse 911 saved lives," said Ron Lane, emergency services director of San Diego County. "There's no way we would have been able to notify everyone, especially during the first night of the fires."

During a Sunday night/Monday morning period, many residents went to bed thinking they were in no danger, only to be awakened by an alert telling them a new fire had started and was headed in their direction. "We made a lot of phone calls that woke people up," Lane said. "I just think the fact that no one died in their cars evacuating is a testimony to the fact that the reverse 911 and the local sheriff department's outstanding work paid off."

The sheriff's department purchased a server-based reverse 911 system in 2005 that sent out 377,000 alerts during the 2007 fires. In 2006, the county purchased a Web-based system that made more than 170,000 calls during the latest fires. The Sheriff's Department system requires that all calls be made at Sheriff's Department headquarters, whereas the county's system allows officials to make calls from wherever the Internet is available.

San Diego officials also spent $20 million on a Web emergency operations center (EOC) system that gave officials from 85 different agencies teleconference capabilities. That forged the collaboration that made evacuation and providing shelter an orderly process. "We had more than 300 people logged in at one time during the height of the fires," Lane said. "Everybody had situational awareness of what was going on, what areas were being evacuated, what hospitals' status was and everything else."

The Motorola Web EOC system worked in tandem with the mass notification systems by letting everyone know what parts of the county were being evacuated at a certain time and where people were going. That allowed the Red Cross, animal control and other agencies to prepare and respond accordingly. It all worked remarkably well, Lane said.

"All I can say is that compared to other exercises and other things I've been involved in, we had outstanding situational awareness this time; far better than I would have ever thought. I never felt at any time that we didn't know what was going on in the field."

 

For comprehensive coverage of the Southern California fires, see the February 2008 issue of Emergency Management magazine.

Jim McKay  |  Associate editor