Lessons Learned from the Northern California Wildfires

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In October 2017, several wildfires hit the North Bay near San Francisco. There were 43 deaths and over 245,000 acres consumed by the wildfires. Did the local authorities do enough to inform the citizens of the impending danger? The answer to this question is yes and no.

YES

The Sonoma County local authorities did try to notify those in the affected area. However, the success of warning was very limited. The majority of people affected only found out when they heard emergency vehicle sirens in their neighborhoods or were told by friends, family, and neighbors.

In the previous year, 2016, Sonoma County launched the SoCo (Sonoma County) Alert system. This was an opt-in system where you would be notified by Sonoma County first responders in the event of emergency situations. Any message regarding the safety, property, or welfare of the community would be disseminated using the SoCo Alert system. These may include evacuation notifications, shelter-in-place, boil water advisories, tsunami warnings and flood warnings. Interestingly, during the introduction to the SoCo Alert system, there was no mention of wildfires. Sign up was tepid, and after one year (June 2017), only 2% of the county had signed up.

In October 2017, the system was put to the test, sending out the wildfire warning. About 50,000 calls (including reverse 911 calls) were placed through the SoCo Alert system. Only 15% of the calls were answered. The other 85% did not connect, went to voicemail, or received a busy signal. Clearly, the system did not work the way everyone had hoped.

NO

The Sonoma County local authorities decided not to invoke WEA (Wireless Emergency Alert). This is an "Amber" style alert that would have sent a message to all cell/smart phones in certain cell area(s). In hindsight, many are questioning why a broad-based alert wasn't sent out. But part of the reason for not invoking WEA is the fact that it is broad-based. The concern was that it would reach "too many" people and create widespread panic. In other words, many people who were not being affected would, nonetheless, receive the message and take to the roads, creating massive traffic jams. This not only could have adversely affected those who needed open roads to flee the wildfires, but it would have also impaired the ability of emergency vehicles (police, fire, and ambulances) to reach those in dire need.

As a local official, you are placed in a "damned if you do, damned if you don't" dilemma. With incomplete information and little to no time to investigate and decide, no one envies anyone making this kind of decision.

Note: There was one county, Lake County (north of Sonoma County), that did send out a Wireless Emergency Alert. Unlike Sonoma County, Lake County's wildfire was smaller and had no fatalities.

Of course, not all emergencies are the same. Each type of disaster has its own characteristics which may require its own set of rules before sending out an alert.

  • Sudden and widespread (earthquakes)
  • Sudden and localized (plant explosions, chemical/biological train derailments or truck collisions, aircraft disaster, mass shootings, terror attacks)
  • Anticipatory and widespread (hurricanes)
  • Anticipatory and localized (tornados, wildfires)

Both tornados and wildfires are unique, as they are both anticipatory and sudden. Meteorologists provide warnings that weather conditions are conducive to tornados/wildfires. However, once it actually strikes, there is an urgent need to get warnings out to the right people. What made the North Bay wildfires so devastating was that a populated area was hit, and most people are not aware/knowledgeable about wildfires (nor prepared when one occurred). The last wildfire in the area was over 50 years ago, the Hanley wildfire of 1964 (mirrored the 2017 Tubbs fire). A major difference was there was no loss of life in the Hanley wildfire. How many in the North Bay counties were even aware that they lived in a wildfire area?

On a personal level, what can you do? Have you heard of Nixle? Nixle is a notification service offered to government entities (police, emergency management offices, city offices, agencies) that allows sending messages via phone (landline and cell), texts, email, and Web. With over 8,100 government agencies enrolled, there is a good chance you can sign up for warnings from your local government. And as an opt-in service, you must proactively register.

While we all hope for no disasters, we know this is unrealistic. And most disasters are predictable (i.e. they have happened before). What we can do, at both a government and personal level, is to learn from others and prepare for the worst.

"SCTC Perspectives" is written by members of the Society of Communications Technology Consultants, an international organization of independent information and communications technology professionals serving clients in all business sectors and government worldwide.