Who's to Blame for Failure to Warn?

In the two worst fires in California history, authorities chose not to use a readily available warning system that might have saved lives. But with whom does the blame for this failure really lie?

by Lucien G. Canton / November 19, 2018

In last year’s Tubbs Fire in Northern California, the county of Sonoma opted not to activate the Wireless Emergency Alert (WEA), a component of the Integrated Public Alert and Warning System (IPAWS) which would have sent a warning message directly to cellphones. The county cited concerns over activating phones outside the affected area and the potential for panic. An after-action report from the State Office of Emergency Services criticized this decision, finding a limited understanding of the system and outdated information as to its capabilities among county personnel. Twenty-two people died in the Tubbs Fire, equal to the death toll in the 11 other fires in the region combined.

Now comes word that Butte County, scene of the worst fire in California history, also chose not to activate WEA, relying instead on an opt-in notification system and door-to-door contact, as did Sonoma County. The fire is only 65 percent contained as of this writing, and Butte County has not yet given a rationale for the decision not to use WEA. Seventy-seven people have been killed so far and almost 1,000 are still missing in the Camp Fire.

This failure to activate WEA could be attributed to many causes. It is easy to blame untrained or inexperienced personnel (both decisions were made by local sheriffs’ offices) or on emergency managers who had oversight responsibility for the warning system. However, these are not the root cause. I would submit that the true cause is our lack of standards for emergency managers.

Excuses like concern over panic or the effectiveness of the warning system reflect an ignorance of social science research and how people react in disasters. Research shows that people do not panic when receiving a warning. Instead, they seek corroboration, a process referred to as “milling” by social scientists. This means they will most likely not react to the initial warning but will seek to confirm it through other sources that they personally trust. Further, no single system will reach everyone, so the more channels you use to convey the warning, the better. According to Dr. Dennis Mileti, who has spent a lifetime studying these issues, “multiple dissemination channels for public disaster warnings yield quicker and more comprehensive audience penetration.”

Why isn’t this information from social science research more widely known and applied? It is because we as a profession have still not defined what is required to be an emergency manager. There is nothing that requires someone appointed or hired as an emergency manager to have a knowledge of social science research. While we have seen a welcome growth in emergency management degree programs that emphasize research-based planning, jobs still go to those with experience that, while extremely valuable, is limited largely to tactical response and who have limited or no knowledge of social science research. A long as we fail to define minimum requirements for emergency managers, we will continue to perpetuate disaster myths that lead to bad decisions in a disaster that in turn can result in a loss of life among those we protect.