California Suggests Improvements to Alert System for County Overwhelmed by Wildfire Last Year

Not requiring a sign up to receive emergency alerts, developing message templates and improving training for all public safety personnel are just some of the ideas from California officials on how to reduce fatalities from natural disasters.

by J.D. Morris, The Press Democrat / February 27, 2018

(TNS) — California officials Monday gave Sonoma County several steps it can take to handle another emergency better than the firestorm four months ago, including making sure the public doesn’t need to sign up in advance to receive warnings about an unfolding disaster. Other changes recommended by the state Office of Emergency Services include clarifying county guidelines for how officials use different warning technologies, developing prescripted message templates and improving training for public safety incident commanders, dispatchers and others authorized to issue warnings during an urgent crisis.

The recommendations came as part of a formal state review of the process Sonoma County followed to alert people as the October wildfires began raging. The county’s warning procedures have been the subject of intense scrutiny and community criticism for the last four months, largely because local leaders didn’t send amber alert-style cellphone warnings that critics believe could have reached many more people in the inferno’s path.

“The county would benefit from additional training, exercises and awareness, with emphasis on coordinated communications and more preparation and analysis associated with these rapidly evolving evacuation scenarios,” the review said. “Training for circumstances with gradual evacuation scenarios, such as those triggered by slow-rise river flooding or incoming storms, is insufficient. This is a topic the assessment team believes requires further, in-depth attention at all levels of government.”

The state review identified several flaws in the county’s initial response, including a lack of “reliable, timely and coordinated situational awareness” about the severity of the firestorm during its first hours. The report also said the county’s failure to force warning messages onto the cellphones of people in harm’s way was based on a “limited awareness and understanding” of the system that sends such alerts and “outdated information” regarding its technical abilities.

Supervisor Shirlee Zane said the county handled much of the firestorm response well, but the state review made some “disturbing” findings, fueling her belief that officials should err on the side of sending too many alerts, not too few.

“We should alert people as many ways as we can — it’s not rocket science,” Zane said. “The cell towers went down. Electricity went out. Let’s face it: We do not have a foolproof system, especially for something as catastrophic as these fires … We owe it to the public to give them every single means, every single way that we could possibly alert them.”

Mark Ghilarducci, director of the state emergency office, said his agency is in the process of developing statewide guidelines for issuing emergency alerts. Already, North Coast lawmakers have introduced a bill that would require all counties in the state to have an emergency alert program that could send messages to cellphones and follow new standards for warning the public.

“One life lost is too many, and it is clear there are significant shortcomings across this state when it comes to emergency alerts,” said state Sen. Mike McGuire, D-Healdsburg. “My belief is the best way to show that an issue is a priority is through your budget, and that is why the state of California needs to fund a statewide emergency alert standard in 2018.”

The review recommends Sonoma County establish a detailed process guiding the coordination of its alerting systems, including the opt-in Nixle and SoCo Alert platforms — or eliminate one of them entirely. In any case, the county should use the federal government’s Wireless Emergency Alert system for “all critical public alert and warnings” because those messages don’t require people in affected areas to sign up in advance, benefit people who are deaf or hearing-impaired, appear even to visitors and are “less exposed” to wireless network congestion, the review said.

The review further recommends potential public safety incident commanders in the county be trained and authorized to order public alerts and evacuations when needed, and that alert operators, dispatchers and staff who work in the county’s emergency operations center be trained how to compose and send effective warnings. Emergency alert operators should practice sending warnings at least once every six months, and others authorized to order alerts should receive a “refresher briefing on best practices” at least once a year, the review said.

The county should also use prescripted message templates for quickly-needed evacuations, sheltering in place, hazard awareness and other kinds of public alerts needed during an emergency, the review said.

Fountaingrove resident Michael Fiumara, who has been sharply critical of the county’s failure to send mass cellphone alerts, said the recommendations in the state review sounded like good suggestions, particularly in regards to increased training. But he also urged the county to be open to other improvements as well, including sirens — an option Zane has already said she wants to consider.

“I really think that we have to have all the cards on the table,” Fiumara said. “If we don’t do something about this, it’s going to happen again.”

The Board Supervisors will hear more about the state review Tuesday as part of a daylong workshop about the emergency alert system and efforts to make the county more resilient in the event of future natural disasters.

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