Sonoma County emergency official reassigned amid public criticism over fire alerts
The Sonoma County emergency services official who played a central role in the county's heavily criticized failure to send more widespread alerts warning residents about the October wildfires has been reassigned to a new position, county representatives said Wednesday.
Christopher Helgren was moved from his post as emergency services manager into a different job in risk management as part of an effort to ensure community confidence in the event of future disasters, County Administrator Sheryl Bratton said. His reassignment was effective last Thursday, she said.
Helgren was chiefly responsible for a decision - about a year before the fires - that ruled out use of wireless alerts to cellphones to warn residents of an emergency. Instead, the county relied in October on a pair of voluntary programs designed to reach residents by phone or email - if they had registered to receive the alerts. Most of the calls on the county's SoCo Alerts program did not go through in the fires' initial hours, when cellphone towers and utility lines were knocked out.
Also, a state review of the county's warning system has found county emergency officials did not appear to be aware of the full capability of wireless emergency alerts, which can be forced onto cellphones in specific areas during a disaster, reaching those in the clearest danger.
But Bratton said the job reassignment for Helgren was not based on the failure to send Amber Alert-style warnings as the fires erupted Oct. 8. The blazes destroyed 5,100 homes in the county and killed 24 people.
“It is essential that we have the public's trust,” Bratton said Wednesday in an interview. “It is important that the public has confidence in our ability to respond and communicate in an emergency situation.”
Helgren couldn't be reached for comment Wednesday. He was out of town at a conference in the first hours of the firestorm, when Bratton ran the county's emergency operations center along with Helgren's direct boss, Jim Colangelo, interim director of the county's Fire and Emergency Services Department.
In his new role, Helgren, 56, will be responsible for updating a county operations plan in preparation for future disasters such as floods, earthquakes or wildfires. The county is seeking to name a long-term replacement and has tapped Brentt Blaser, an emergency coordinator to fill in, according to Bratton, who has the final say over filling the post.
Bratton said Helgren won't take a pay cut as part of the job change. His base salary last year was nearly $115,000, according to Christina Cramer, the county's human resources director. A nearly 18-year county employee, Helgren became the emergency manager in 2011 after previously serving as deputy manager, Cramer said.
Many residents who were forced to flee the fires in the middle of the night have questioned why they never received any cellphone notifications about the danger rapidly approaching their homes. While Lake County used wireless alerts in October, Helgren said in an interview last year after the fires that he wasn't confident in the Wireless Emergency Alerts system's ability to send targeted messages to an area smaller than the entire county.
But the technology has become more sophisticated, and “that was not either known or understood by the county emergency management staff,” Mark Ghilarducci, director of the state Office of Emergency Services, said in an interview Tuesday.
A review by his agency of the Sonoma County's warning system found the county was not prepared to effectively notify residents about an impending natural disaster on the scale of the October wildfires, according to Ghilarducci. The review was requested by Bratton in late November and is expected to be made public in the coming days.
Board of Supervisors Chairman James Gore said he supported Bratton's decision to replace Helgren in the emergency manger post. He also said the move was not in response to actions taken during the recent wildfires and characterized it as more about preparing the county for the next disaster.
“The County Administrator's action is about us having confidence in the office for the future, not about whether there was dereliction of duty that night,” Gore said.
He acknowledged Helgren failed to use all the tools at his disposal and suggested a possible reorganization of the emergency services division under the Sonoma County Sheriff's Office or other county entity.
When the firestorm erupted Sunday Oct. 8, both Helgren and emergency coordinator Zachary Hamill were at a conference in Yosemite National Park. A red-flag warning - a forecast term for conditions that could produce “extreme fire behavior” - had been ordered by the National Weather Service two days before and was in effect starting Sunday morning.
Gore questioned whether county emergency staff should leave the area during future red-flag warnings, though he didn't fault Helgren for being gone in October.
“Nobody took these red-flag warnings as seriously as they were, and that includes people in our office of emergency services,” Gore said. “To me, that has to be something that's embraced by the entire community going forward. Red-flag warnings need to be our fire warnings - like a hurricane warning.”
Martin Whiteside, one of many local residents who has criticized the lack of widespread cellphone alerts, said he was inclined to support the county's decision to reassign Helgren.
“It's probably a step in the right direction,” said Whiteside, who's currently living in the Sacramento area while a fire victim stays in his Rincon Valley home. “I'm not necessarily happy about it ... I'm sure there's a lot of information that wasn't reported, and there's no need to be vindictive.”
Like many other Sonoma County residents, Whiteside evacuated after a neighbor pounded on his front door in the middle of the night. He remains concerned by the fact that his cellphone stayed quiet as flames threatened his neighborhood.
“It wasn't upsetting that there was a fire - it was that there was such a lack of support or resources at all,” Whiteside said. “It was the fact that I was on my own. That really was the most disturbing part about it.”
You can reach Staff Writer Paul Payne at 707-568-5312 or email@example.com. On Twitter @ppayne. You can reach Staff Writer J.D. Morris at 707-521-5337 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @thejdmorris.