On October 8, 2017 in the Sonoma County’s there was a catastrophic wildfires which lead to an estimated evacuation of 100,000 people, more than 5,000 structures burned and 25 lives were lost making this event the most destructive wildfire in California history. A former 911 dispatches employee and police officer quoted that “People didn’t die from the smoke. People didn’t die from the fire. People died because they didn’t know something was coming.”
The disaster Assessment Team determined Sonoma County had in place an established public alert and warning system with the means to alert a wide range of County residents and visitors of the impending dangers, the investigation concluded alert and warning capabilities were uncoordinated and include gaps, overalps and redundancies. The state’s independent review found Sonoma County emergency staff failed to prepare for the wildfires and had an outdated understanding of technology, unorganized emergency alerting protocol and under-trained staff.
Disaster Communication Plan
The roles of the alert originator, authorized to direct the issuance of public alerts and warnings and that of an alert operator, trained in the technical operation of the warnings tools were often confusing. Several individuals interviewed during the investigation reported a lack of clarity with regard to the authority to make decisions and issue warnings.
The assessment team found it troubling that both decision makers and operators of the county’s notification system reported having little or no training on the social science aspect of issuing public warnings. This includes understanding the thresholds and criteria necessary for issuing a public warning as well as how to use effective language in warning messages. These best practices also include effectively communicating predesignated evacuation routes to local residents, preparing for traffic control and ensuring shelter center information is readily available in need.
The investigation revealed that checklists or detailed procedures for deciding what warnings to issue, when and in what form appeared to be almost entirely absent. Alert-message templates that were available largely focused on flood emergencies or evacuation, leaving alert operators to improvise alert messaging content. This placed more pressure and confusion on alert operates who were already under-trained on the emergency alert system.
The technical alert and warning systems to be functioning adequately, especially considering the impact of the wildfires on the area’s communication infrastructure. Unfortunately, emergency management leaders were unable to monitor the progress of firefights on the ground. Lack of knowledge regarding the movement of first res-ponders and resources in the field severely impacted overall situation awareness. Because of lack of communication, decisions were being made on which areas should receive evacuation warning messages without alert operators being fully informed on the state of the wildfires.
Recommendations for improvement
All public safety incident commanders be trained and authorized to order public warnings and evacuations when necessary. Training should focus on the science of effective warnings and the “when, why and how” of alerting. This also includes alert operators and personnel at dispatch centers and emergency operation centers. These workers must know how to compose and transmit effective emergency alert messages during an emergency.
Pre-scripted message templates should be developed to manage short notice evacuations, care and shelter locations and other important information residents need during an active emergency. Under-utilization of alerting system will result in catastrophic consequences for residents. Not only will this prove dangerous during an emergency event, but non-emergency drills by alert operators unfamiliar with the system can result in another false alert. Annual system reviews by alert operators could gave made them feel more comfortable sending out an alert warning despite the stress of the growing wildfires.
Sonoma Emergency Manager Chris Helgren’s fears of mass evacuation ultimately influenced his decision to not use the national Wireless Emergency Alert system, leaving many residents unaware of approaching fires. Review and development of rapid evacuation plans for fires, chemical releases, active shooters and other immediate hazards is recommended.