Preparedness & Recovery

Sonoma County Warnings Fell Short in Wine Country Fires, State Report Says

During the early hours of the disaster, the report says, the county 'lacked reliable, timely, and coordinated situational awareness as to the scale, size, and scope of the fires’ growth, character, and movement.'

by Joaquin Palomino,San Francisco Chronicle / February 27, 2018


(TNS) - Sonoma County’s emergency managers were not properly prepared to warn people about the massive wildfires that swept across the North Bay in October and claimed 25 lives in the county, according to a long-anticipated state report released Monday.

The 34-page review, produced by the California Office of Emergency Services at the request of county officials, found, among other things, that Sonoma County’s procedures for issuing emergency alerts to residents in the fires’ path were “uncoordinated and included gaps, overlaps, and redundancies.”

During the early hours of the disaster, the report says, the county “lacked reliable, timely, and coordinated situational awareness as to the scale, size, and scope of the fires’ growth, character, and movement.”

The Sonoma County Board of Supervisors is scheduled to discuss the state’s findings at a meeting Tuesday night.

“When you have a crisis moving this fast, that’s this complicated and that required immediate action, you’re going to have to lean on well-placed, well-exercised protocols,” said Mark Ghilarducci, director of the California Office of Emergency Services. “As you read through the report, you’ll find there was some confusion and inconsistencies in people understanding their roles and responsibilities.”

While there were shortcomings in how Sonoma County notified people about the fires, Ghilarducci said the county has generally been well prepared for disasters, and noted that there are many differences in how agencies across the state issue emergency alerts.

A major topic covered in the report was Sonoma County emergency managers’ decision not to send an Amber Alert-style message called a Wireless Emergency Alert, or WEA, after the fires broke out. Such an alert could have reached virtually all cell phones in the region.

Local emergency managers, including those in other areas recently hit by disaster, such as hurricane-ravaged Houston, have complained about WEAs’ inability to target precise geographic areas.

Sonoma County officials told The Chronicle days after the fires erupted that they chose not to send a WEA because they believed it would have hit cell phones far from the area of the fires, potentially causing panic and creating traffic jams that would have blocked people from getting in and out of evacuation zones.

The report, however, found that local emergency managers had a “limited awareness and understanding of the WEA system and outdated information regarding WEA’s technical capabilities.”

While Sonoma County officials had made a decision not to rely on the wireless alert system roughly a year ago, due to its broad reach and other limitations, by the time of the October fires changes had been made that would have allowed more targeted WEA messages to be sent, Ghilarducci said.

The alert systems that local officials did deploy — two separate programs that residents largely have to sign up for — were poorly coordinated, the state review found. It also identified shortcomings in the training emergency responders received in how and when to push out different types of messages.

“Checklists or detailed procedures for deciding what warnings to issue, when, and in what form appeared to be almost entirely absent,” the report states.

The alerts that did go out, many of which contained potentially life-saving evacuation orders, largely went unheard, a review by The Chronicle showed. Fewer than 2 percent of Sonoma County residents were enrolled in the primary warning system, called SoCo Alert, before the fires broke out, and just 15 percent of the warning calls during the early and most devastating hours of the disaster were answered.

“The alert system failed, period — no ifs, ands or buts,” said Gary Kozel, who lives in the small town of Kenwood, which was devastated by the Nuns Fire. “I’m really hopeful the county will take the report seriously and will take the measures necessary to remedy what was an abysmal situation.”

The report included a number of recommendations for Sonoma County, including updating and expanding public alert and warning plans, training people how to compose effective emergency messages, and utilizing a system such as WEA to ensure that alerts reach as many affected people as possible.

The county has already made some changes following the fires.

Former emergency manager Christopher Helgren, who was one of the small group of people who made the decision not to send wireless alerts, was recently reassigned. And the local dispatch center is working to develop instructions for emergency dispatchers to give to people trapped by fire when they call 911, said Aaron Abbott, executive director of the county’s emergency dispatch center.

An “after action” report also is being prepared that will cover other issues related to the county’s response to the wildfire, and state lawmakers introduced a bill in January to create uniform emergency notification protocols statewide.

“When I look at this assessment, I don’t see any smoking gun — what I see is a lack of being prepared the way we should be,” said Sonoma County Supervisor James Gore. “Others aren’t prepared, but this is our moment to be the point of a spear to make our communities confident in our ability to respond.”

San Francisco Chronicle staff writer Lizzie Johnson contributed to this report.
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