Sonoma County’s top elected and administrative leaders all agree if another major disaster struck the region today, one key aspect of their response would be different than when the historic wildfires ignited five months ago: They’d use mass cellphone alerts to warn the public about the emergency.
And if rainfall from this latest storm triggered dangerous debris flows in the county’s fire-scarred hillsides, a team of designated staff members would immediately jump into action. Officials are already prepared to send targeted emergency alerts at a moment’s notice to residents living in areas burned during the October wildfires, according to County Administrator Sheryl Bratton.
Regardless of the specific emergency, county leaders across the board say they’d rather send too many warning messages than too few during future incidents.
“We need to use every notification tool available to us,” said Supervisor Lynda Hopkins. “The fact that the decision not to utilize (Wireless Emergency Alerts) was made ahead of time, without any kind of oversight from the Board of Supervisors or clear policy direction, is unacceptable. I don’t think that would be the case if a fire were to break out tonight.”
The shift on alerts is one clear change to emerge after a week in which the county faced a crescendo of outside and internal criticism over its handling of emergency alerts during the initial firestorm. First came the release of a formal state review that found the county lacked “reliable, timely and coordinated situational awareness” about the severity of the firestorm. The report also said the county’s failure to force warning messages onto the cellphones of people in harm’s way was based on a “limited awareness and understanding” of the system that sends such alerts and “outdated information” regarding its technical abilities.
On Tuesday, the Board of Supervisors took up that report as officials aired misgivings about the county’s response in the first public meeting dedicated specifically to emergency warnings and other disaster infrastructure. Supervisor Susan Gorin leveled the harshest assessment, suggesting the county’s lack of coordination and shortfall on notifications made a catastrophic firestorm even deadlier.
“We could have saved lives if we’d had a better system of alerts,” Gorin said. She wept as she recalled tales of escape by friends and constituents who said they were never warned by local authorities of the fires.
In an effort to build on lessons learned in the disaster, the county has implemented several changes to its emergency operations as it considers others recommended in the state review or any that might come from an internal, “after-action” report now being compiled through interviews with dozens of county staff members and others involved in the fire response.
Officials said they will now maintain a “warm” emergency operations center, meaning several staff members will be on call when forecasts call for conditions that might spark emergencies, such as the hot, dry, windy weather that came in October or big winter storms of the type seen last winter. With that system in place, officials have sketched out varying levels of emergency response that could be more quickly activated by Bratton — who as county administrator is the emergency chief — or someone else she designates. The procedures could be used for natural disasters as well as public safety emergencies such as a mass shooting or terrorist attack, county officials said.