A torrent of firsthand reports from firefighters, law enforcement and 911 callers on Oct. 8 confirmed a massive natural disaster was unfolding in the North Bay, but Sonoma County had no coordinated system in place to track the location and spread of the destructive fires that erupted that night.
The shortfall, documented in a state review and the subject of public scrutiny in the past four months, hampered the county’s attempt to warn people and direct them to safety, county supervisors acknowledged Tuesday in their first public meeting about the emergency response system.
“We could have saved lives if we’d had a better system of alerts,” said Supervisor Susan Gorin, who wept Tuesday as she described harrowing tales of escape by Sonoma Valley residents who told her they were never warned by local authorities of the firestorm, which killed 24 people in the county.
But what if the county had two dozen fire detection cameras that could have given emergency commanders an immediate view into what was happening on the ground? And what if a network of sirens had rousted entire communities out of bed when fires ignited after nightfall on that Sunday night and helped them evacuate earlier?
Such new technologies and disaster planning are among the measures Sonoma County could adopt to better prepare for the next major catastrophe, supervisors indicated in their wide-ranging discussion Tuesday with emergency experts from across the Bay Area and nation.
“Not knowing where the front line of the fire was, not knowing where to send crews, I have realized that played a very important role in how you send alerts,” said Supervisor David Rabbitt, who comes from a family of firefighters.
The October firestorm exposed gaps in the county’s preparation for emergencies, primarily its methods of communicating among emergency responders, with other local government agencies and with the public. The failures — documented in a state review published Monday and in reporting by The Press Democrat since the first week of the fires — have pushed county officials to consider an overhaul of the embattled emergency services division, which is charged with preparing for disasters. The options include transferring oversight of the department from the county administrator to the Sonoma County Sheriff.
Board members made no decisions on that front but were unanimous in their push to improve the county’s emergency unit and signaled their interest in embracing a variety of new systems, including emerging technologies and traditional methods, such as fire-detection cameras and community warning sirens.
“How do we stay ready to pounce?” said Supervisor James Gore, the board chairman.
Most fires are first reported in a 911 call, but the night of Oct. 8, dispatchers had no clear way to funnel the hundreds of first-hand reports coming in from Geyserville to the Sonoma Valley to other agencies, said Aaron Abbott, director of REDCOM, an independent agency that runs Sonoma County’s central fire and medical dispatch center. Dispatchers were fielding about 350 calls per hour at the emergency’s peak and had reports of more than 800 fire and hazard locations in the first 18 hours.
“That’s an enormous task to digest that information,” Abbott told supervisors. “The map becomes a giant blob of pins very quickly.”