Preparedness & Recovery

EDITORIAL: Transparency Still Lacking on Fire Alert Decisions in Santa Rosa, Calif.

After nearly four months, the public still lacks a clear understanding of what decisions were made by the emergency services staff about alerting residents to the fires.

by The Press Democrat, Santa Rosa, Calif. / February 2, 2018

(TNS) - Out of the 3,953 properties burned in Sonoma County in October, 2,160 have been cleared, the county reported this week. In all 846,425 tons of debris have been removed.

The county has provided such detailed information about almost every aspect of its response to this catastrophe — except one. After nearly four months, the public still lacks a clear understanding of what decisions were made by the emergency services staff about alerting residents to the fires.

Those who were hoping to hear such a review at the Board of Supervisors meeting on Monday were in for a disappointment. During his first presentation on the warning systems to supervisors, Emergency Services Manager Christopher Helgren gave no review of what happened, offering instead an update on how his office is working with other agencies to improve the county’s early warning and alert system. He also offered recommendations on improvements to be made.

Helgren acknowledged that the county’s use of its alert system had “come under considerable criticism,” and that the county had asked the state Office of Emergency Services to do its own analysis of the county’s response, including the decision not to activate an Amber Alert-type system that would have warned more people of the approaching fires. He said the department had done its own internal review but did not provide that to the board itself.

Supervisors were justified in registering their disappointment. Helgren said the analysis would be part of a larger internal review that would be presented to the board on Feb. 28 — another four weeks from now. But that’s not good enough.

It took weeks for the county to respond to questions from The Press Democrat about what happened at the county Emergency Services Department and the failure to use the Wireless Emergency Alerts, or WEA, system. County officials have said they chose to not use the system out of concern of causing panic, clogging roads and disrupting the efforts of first responders. Instead, officials opted to use robocalls and applications such as Nixle and SoCo Alert, which send cellphone and email messages to people who had already signed up to receive them. At the time, less than 3 percent of the county’s population was signed up for such alerts.

But the county still has not offered a detailed report on who received what calls and when, and how many residents likely received no calls at all. It’s vital information, because the county can’t know what it needs to do better next time until we know what was done — and wasn’t done — last time.

As Supervisor Shirlee Zane said, “We need to talk about the human process. … How do we make decisions when notifying people? Who is involved in those decisions?” As she noted, “That is essential to understanding emergency services.”

Equally disappointing was Helgren’s response to the supervisors that his department had ruled out the use of sirens in the future. Noting that sirens lose their effectiveness in high winds and cost as much as $2,000 a year to maintain, Helgren said, “We felt the emphasis should be placed on early detection than on sirens.” The facts may yet support such a conclusion, but that’s a decision the supervisors should be making, with input from the public, not staff.

Enough with the secrecy. Let’s pull back the curtain on this and let the public evaluate for themselves what kind of alert system they have — and what kind they want.

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©2018 The Press Democrat (Santa Rosa, Calif.)

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