During an emotional seven-hour public meeting on Tuesday about the shortcomings of the county’s emergency response system, Sonoma County supervisors made clear their dissatisfaction with the performance of those responsible for making sure the county is ready for a crisis.
“All of my life I placed my faith in the professionals — you guys rock,” said Supervisor Susan Gorin. “And to tell you that I am horribly disappointed is an understatement.”
The anguish was understandable, particularly given that Gorin’s was one of the 5,300 homes lost in the October fires. It also was justifiable. As we’ve noted before, the failure to activate the wireless alert system was inexcusable in multiple ways, beginning with the decision by those within the emergency services division to dismiss its use back in 2016 and the failure to include the county administrator and supervisors in that decision-making process. But if the meeting Tuesday and the after-crisis analysis by the state Office of Emergency Services has shown anything, it’s that the problems the county encountered on Oct. 8 and Oct. 9 extended beyond activation of the alert system. They also show there’s plenty of blame to go around, especially for the supervisors themselves who ultimately need to be reminded who was in charge.
The county did not just lack an efficient way to alert residents. It also lacked a coordinated system for tracking the location and velocity for such a fast-moving catastrophic event. This prevented those at the nerve center of the emergency response from knowing what was happening in real time and hampered the ability of dispatchers and others to warn people about how the crisis was unfolding and how to direct residents to safety.
The post-crisis analysis has exposed other weaknesses as well, including gaps in the communication among first responders and with local political leaders, who can and should have the access and information they need to provide the public with the broader picture of an unfolding catastrophe.
As Supervisor David Rabbitt noted, the county’s emergency operations center has a “bunker mentality,” one that needs to be “blown up and fixed.”
But what also needs to be blown up is the county’s silo mentality, the idea that responsibility and accountability for such things as crisis management should fall to a single department, especially one as limited in size as the emergency services division. There were plenty of levels of management between Christopher Helgren, who formerly oversaw this division of just two full-time and two part-time employees, and the Board of Supervisors that also bear responsibility for the gaps that became so evident in the October fires. And the supervisors themselves cannot let themselves off the hook.
The flaws in the county’s response capabilities may not have been widely known internally, but the risks were no secret. In fact, a year before the internal decision was made not to explore wireless alerts, the supervisors were given not just a warning of what could be ahead for Sonoma County but what was likely to happen. And it was just over the border in Lake County. The devastating Valley fire in 2015 should have triggered a top-down review of this county’s fire response plans and capabilities as well as its system of alerting residents to fast-moving catastrophic events. But such a review and overhaul never occurred. For that, the supervisors have only themselves to blame.
But there is no going back. The county needs to move forward, honoring those who died and acknowledging the fears that still exist by developing an emergency response system that is not just capable of doing a better job next time but becomes a model for the state. Because what also has become apparent over the past four months is that no county is ready and no such model exists for responding to such intense, wind-fueled firestorms.
But one is urgently needed. It should be obvious.