California County Supervisors Push for Answers on Emergency Alert Debacle

Officials in Sonoma County are looking at why emergency alerts failed to adequately warn residents of approaching danger during the deadly wildfires in Oct. 2017.

by Julie Johnson, The Press Democrat / January 30, 2018
The remains of a home in a Sonoma County neighborhood. Shutterstock

(TNS) — Sonoma County supervisors Monday again pushed for a review of how its emergency services staff handled their responsibilities to warn the public in October when deadly firestorms ignited across the county.

Following widespread criticism that official warnings about the fast-moving fires reached too few people, the Board of Supervisors had expected to receive a report not only detailing what steps emergency staff took to warn the public but also exploring more effective methods for warning people in harm’s way.

Yet during his first presentation on warning systems to county supervisors since the fires, emergency services manager Christopher Helgren Monday said his department’s after-action report about the fires was an internal document, causing several officials to express disappointment and request he return with a public report explaining how decisions were made the night of the fires and a list of lessons learned.

During Helgren’s short presentation, supervisors signaled their intent for the October fires to be the launch point for a broad discussion about how Sonoma County’s unincorporated communities can prepare for the worst-case-scenarios compounded in rural neighborhoods with narrow roads and spotty cellphone service.

“We have to be prepared as if this same storm is going to happen this coming year, that we’re going to have the Rodgers Creek fault (rupture) this year,” Board Chairman James Gore said. “It’s go time. We’re going to be looking for bold actions and plans.”

Critics have said the county’s warning methods were largely ineffective because people without landline telephones only received messages if they had already registered through opt-in messaging programs like SoCoAlert and Nixle. Only a fraction of residents had signed up.

Residents concerned they received no official warnings about the fires have lambasted county staff’s decision to avoid using a emergency push notification program for cellphones called Wireless Emergency Alert, most commonly used for Amber Alert child abduction notices.

In response, North Coast lawmakers have introduced legislation that would require all California counties have an emergency alert program capable of pushing messages to cellphones and follow statewide standards for emergency warnings.

The state Office of Emergency Services also is conducting a review of how the public was warned the night of the fires. That report is expected to reach the Board of Supervisors in a few weeks.

Helgren has said the federal Wireless Emergency Alert system ran the risk of sending messages too broadly, potentially causing too many people to flee and clog the roads, and so he had ruled it out as a beneficial system for most emergencies. The Federal Communications Commission has been attempting to refine the system for several years, and improvements to the program are expected in the coming years.

On Monday, Helgren repeated his concerns about technological limitations of the federal warning programs, but said his staff is now trained to use it in four circumstances: flash flooding, tsunami, earthquake or a red-flag warning indicating extreme fire danger.

A red-flag warning was in effect Oct. 8 when fires ignited and spread out-of-control in Sonoma, Mendocino, Napa and Lake counties.

Helgren acknowledged “our alert and warning activities have come under considerable criticism” and reassured the board his department is taking full stock of the October firestorms.

“The bedrock of our training and response is looking back,” Helgren said.

Helgren said his department has been working closely with other agencies, including the National Weather Service and California National Guard, to brace for future emergencies, such as mudslides in burned areas. They have established volunteer “storm patrols” ready to patrol damaged landscapes and provide warning if conditions appear dangerous.

Emergency services staff continue to encourage people across the county to sign up for alert programs like SoCoAlert and Nixle.

Supervisor David Rabbitt urged Helgren to provide a thorough accounting of how systems like SoCoAlert and Nixle functioned during the fires so they have the best information available. He said systems like Nixle are less effective at times of emergencies if agencies use them to share nonurgent information.

“Do I need to get a message from a police department in the county telling me someone gets a promotion? No wonder people turn off Nixle,” Rabbitt said.

Supervisor Shirlee Zane urged Helgren to also look beyond technological issues with alert system, and analyze how emergency services staff functioned the night of Oct. 8.

“How do we make decisions? Who is involved? What’s the timeframe in how those are made? That part of it hasn’t been flushed out,” Zane said.

“Too often we get hooked up on the technology side and not the process side. All of us on the board want to understand that and get feedback into that system.”

Supervisors pushed back when Helgren said he had already ruled out warning systems such as neighborhood sirens, sending a strong signal they and the public want the opportunity to weigh the benefits and drawbacks of warning systems such as neighborhood sirens.

“The citizens want to know, can they rely on something or can they not rely on something?” Rabbitt said.

©2018 The Press Democrat (Santa Rosa, Calif.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.