Officials in a Northern California county were ill-prepared, disorganized and lacked sufficient training when deadly, fast-moving wildfires broke out last October endangering about 100,000 people, according to a report from California emergency managers.
Sonoma County officials requested the state review after their response time was criticized. The unprecedented wildfires sparked in the early morning and eventually killed 44 people in several counties north of San Francisco and destroyed 8,900 buildings. Many residents reported finding out about the fires from neighbors or relatives, rather than official alerts.
The report, which was released Monday by California’s Office of Emergency Services, concludes that multiple alert systems in Sonoma County, overlapping responsibilities and a failure to map out roles in an emergency “appear to have resulted in duplication, inconsistency and some confusion in messages transmitted to the public.”
Counties were operating separately as different employees struggled to cope with hundreds of incoming reports of fires and smoke at numerous locations, leaving them unsure of who was in charge of what, OES investigators found. Two jobs related to sending evacuation and fire warnings even had similar titles: alert originator and alert operator.
“Checklists or detailed procedures for deciding what warnings to issue, when, and in what form appeared to be almost entirely absent, except for a widely shared understanding that the basic required criterion was ‘imminent threat to life, health or property,”’ the report said.
Documents released by the county show it targeted more than 55,000 telephone numbers over SoCoAlert – reaching about half of them – and the county also sent more than 6,000 text and email messages on that system. The county sent another 38,000 messages through its voluntary Nixle cellphone text alert system, which only went to residents who signed up in advance.
While some had been trained on the overlapping warning systems, they had not prepared alerts for fire emergencies, the report said. Instead, all the alerts were focused on flood emergencies or evacuations, leaving officials to figure out how to write the alerts on the fly as they simultaneously worried about traffic congestion and feared unnecessarily panicking people.
The county’s failure to clearly define roles “in such a rapidly developing situation left a number of individuals in the position of assuming responsibility for framing evacuation messages without adequate training, information, or in coordination with other elements of government.”
The Press Democrat of Santa Rosa reported last week that former Emergency Services Manager Christopher Helgren had been reassigned to a new job. The newspaper said Helgren was chiefly responsible for a decision about a year before the fires that ruled out sending mass wireless alerts to cellphones to warn residents of an emergency, leading the county to instead send the messages only to those who had opted in.
The report makes 11 recommendations, starting with creating an updated emergency plan that addresses how each of the warning systems should be used in an emergency. It also says many employees need much more training.
James Gore, chairman of the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors, said officials have learned valuable lessons that they are working to implement before the next fire season, including sending alerts much sooner, preparing residents ahead of time to be ready to go, and recognizing that people now get their information from a wide variety of outlets very quickly.
“If there’s a catastrophic event, we need to not be afraid to wake up the world,” Gore said. “We cannot wait another year to learn this lesson. We have to prepare for this year. … To me this means we have five to six months to get our act together for the next fire season.”
(Associated Press writer Jocelyn Gecker also contributed to this report.)
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