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Sonoma County, Calif., Learns Bitter Lessons from Deadly Fire, Adopts Reforms

The county will deploy a range of response measures, including mass alerting.

CA: Aftermath of Northern California Fire
The remains of a burnt vehicle in front of a house in Sonoma County, California after the recent devastating fire.
Sipa USA via AP
Sonoma County, which lost 25 lives in last October’s wildfires, has changed the ways in which it alerts residents after scathing criticism for not using cellphone alerts during the devasting fires last fall.

The then emergency manager and others decided against sending out mass alerts because they believed they could not adequately target who received the messages and didn’t want to “over-alert.” They felt that doing so could lead people who were safe to evacuate into a more dangerous area or cause severe traffic.

The new policy will be to send out alerts, even if they risk alerting more people than is necessary, according to Jim Colangelo, interim director of the Department of Fire and Emergency Services. He said the county has gained a “better understanding that we can do a better job of geo-targeting than what was believed back at the time of the fires.”

The county looked at the response from the Thomas fire in Southern California and asked the California Office of Emergency Services (CalOES) to review its response and come to some conclusions that formed its new policy on response.

“There’s a feeling based on what we’ve seen from the public and from what we saw with the Thomas fire that the public is more accepting of over-alerts than under-alerts, and expects over-alerting and not under-alerting,” Colangelo said.

Redundancy will also be a large part of any future alerting as people tend to wait for more info before responding to a single alert. “There’s not one system that’s going to reach everybody,” Colangelo said. He said these alerts, with limits in characters and the inability to imbed links, is a way to get people’s attention and that the county needs to use every tool it has in an age where people expect information instantaneously.

The CalOES reports said that the Sonoma County procedures for issuing alerts was “uncoordinated, and included gaps, overlaps and redundancies.” It also said the county “lacked reliable, timely and coordinated situational awareness as to the scale, size and scope of the fire’s growth, character and movement.”

Colangelo pointed out that if the county had sent out alerts that night, residents probably would have been calling 911, which was already overwhelmed and that 911 operators had limited information.

“Things were moving so fast they might not have been able to tell them, ‘Yeah, you need to evacuate.’ They might have said, ‘Well, if you got this notice you might leave,’ and that raises some doubt in people’s minds.”

Additionally, the county will always keep a “warm” EOC, having key emergency staff on hand and also having key section chiefs on call in case of a disaster, and the county has already developed 90-character templates and shape files to send out in case of debris flow or flash flood in a burn area.

The county has deployed some stream and rain gauges and is working on how to notify the public. It’s also working on acquiring some fire detection cameras, which would have given officials a better idea of how fast the fires were moving.

All in all, Colangelo said the county will be extra cautious next time. “And then as we get more intel, we can pull back an evacuation, but until we know what is going on, we’re going to get as many people out of harm’s way as possible.”