In October 2007, 16 fires in California scorched more than 500,000 acres, and destroyed an estimated 1,500 homes and structures from north of Los Angeles to southeast of San Diego. 

But it wasn't just good fortune that more people weren't injured or killed during the fires: Officials evacuated more than 500,000 people in an orderly manner and provided shelter for more than 20,000 evacuees.

Though as many as seven people died and 90 were injured due the 2007 fires, even more people would likely have been in peril if not for the two Reverse 911 telephone alert systems -- one server-based, one Web-based -- the addition of a Web Emergency Operations Center (WebEOC) system, and the collaboration of agencies.

"There's no 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."


Invaluable Systems

The number of people evacuated and those given shelter far exceed anything done during previous firestorms in the region.

During Southern California's 2003 blazes, 15 people died, more than 2,000 homes were destroyed and just 56,000 people were evacuated. Some residents never received a notice to evacuate. That's not surprising considering the methods used for evacuation, which consisted of law enforcement personnel knocking on doors and notifying residents from loudspeakers.

The hectic, uncoordinated response to the 2003 fires prompted San Diego County officials to invest in two mass-notification systems prior to the 2007 fires, and those are credited with saving lives last fall.

During a Sunday night-Monday morning period in parts of San Diego County, 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 sheriffs' departments' outstanding work paid off.

"We used the 2003 fires as a game plan and an opportunity to identify what things we needed to do," Lane continued. "The key to Reverse 911 is it's essentially an electronic knock on the door from the sheriff, instead of relying on sheriff's loudspeakers and going door to door to let people know as in 2003. We had many people die in their garages or in their escape routes in 2003. The fires just move so fast and there are only so many deputies, you can't be everywhere."

The San Diego County Sheriff's Department purchased a server-based Reverse 911 system from PlantCML in 2005 that sent out 377,000 alerts during the 2007 fires. In 2006, the county purchased for $100,000 a Web-based Reverse 911 system called AlertSanDiego from Twenty First Century Communications that made more than 170,000 calls during the latest fires. The Sheriff's Department system, purchased with $300,000 of Urban Area Security Initiative (UASI) grant money, requires 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.

But both systems proved invaluable and a far cry from having sheriff's deputies going door to door to evacuate people as was the case in 2003. "There were fewer people killed and fewer people arrested because of [the two systems]," said San Diego County Sheriff Bill Kolender.

Officials tap into the 911 database to access telephone numbers to call when sending out a Reverse 911 message. "We just code it onto a GIS map system, and then when we want to call an area, we just draw a polygon on the GIS map around the area we want to call," Lane said, "and it automatically calls all the homes in that area."

Jim McKay  |  Associate editor