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."
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."
The Reverse 911 calls are coordinated so that the evacuation is done in phases, Lane said, and the WebEOC allows every jurisdiction to know what part of the community is being evacuated at a certain time. "For example, we call the top half of the northern part of the community and tell them to evacuate one way, and we call the bottom half of the community and tell them to evacuate another way," he said. "Being able to do phased evacuations allowed much more orderly, efficient and effective evacuation than just going to the media and saying 'The whole town, evacuate.'"
San Diego County officials also used a 2005 UASI grant for the $100,000 WebEOC system, which gives officials from 85 different agencies teleconference capabilities, and some added capacity and redundancy into its 800 MHz wireless system. That forged the collaboration that made evacuation and providing shelter an orderly process. "We had more than 300 people logged in at one time during the height of the fires," Lane said. "Everybody had situational awareness of what was going on, what areas were being evacuated, what every hospital's status was."
The Emergency Services Integrators (ESI) WebEOC system allowed officials to share data with other jurisdictions and agencies in real time, and access satellite images, mapping information and national weather trends.
Officials used WebEOC in tandem with the mass notification systems by letting everyone know what parts of the county were being evacuated at a certain time and where people were going. That allowed the Red Cross, animal control and other agencies to prepare and respond accordingly. It all worked remarkably well, Lane said.
"When the Sheriff's Department issued a Reverse 911 message, they put it in WebEOC so everybody else knew that area was being evacuated," Lane said. "Our joint information center put that information out to the media. The Red Cross saw that and put together the shelters; the animal control people saw that ... being able to communicate so that all the different agencies knew the second one agency did something all the others could adjust and make appropriate decisions. That allowed us to ensure we got the right resources at the right place at the right time."
The Reverse 911 and WebEOC technologies allowed agencies to adjust quickly when circumstances arose for which there were no plans, such as for sheltering. "We had never anticipated this coming; we had never sheltered more than 5,000 people at a time, and we sheltered more than 20,000 during this fire," Lane said. "We had to do some major adjustments, setting up two major shelters -- one at Qualcomm Stadium and one at Del Mar Fairgrounds. That was a major effort."
Three hospitals had to evacuate as well, and the improved communication helped focus the transportation efforts of the local transit system, which adjusted by going to a holiday schedule.
The 800 MHz wireless radio system also played a large role in the improved communications, because more agencies were included this time around and more redundancy was built into it after many of the repeaters were destroyed in 2003. Many repeaters and more than 300 new Motorola radios were added to the system after the 2003 fires -- and it paid off.
"They built in enough sites and enough capabilities so that even when repeater sites went down because of the fire, we were able to redirect calls and still communicate," Lane said. "As agencies came in from other parts of the state to help us, they were provided with radios to communicate with us in the field."
That made a big difference this time around, Kolender said.
"We had everybody on the same frequency this time. That allowed us to communicate with them at the beginning and at the end, [and] really helped as we coordinated everybody's efforts," Kolender said, adding that the system had been in use for years, but it wasn't until recently that the majority of agencies came aboard. "We had a lot of people working together that we did not have with the 2003 fires."
In the future, officials will consider text messaging to repopulate communities once the fire threat is gone, but for now, Lane and his cohorts are ecstatic about how the evacuations were conducted.
"Compared to other exercises and other things I've been involved in, we had outstanding situational awareness this time -- far better than I would have ever thought," he said. "I never felt at any time that we didn't know what was going on in the field."