Sonoma County’s 911 dispatchers write new script to handle monster wildfires
The woman was desperate to get down the hill with her two children and her father, still weak after open-heart surgery, before the wildfire burned her family's home in the Sonoma Valley. Flames blocked their one route out on narrow Nuns Canyon Road.
She called 911 - “I feel like we're trapped on Nuns Canyon here so I'm, I'm just fearing for my family,” the woman said.
The dispatcher was sympathetic but had no advice to give. Dozens of other 911 calls were coming in.
“What can we do?” the woman pushed, the urgency in her voice clear. “There's a house up higher …”
The dispatcher interrupted and said she had to put her on hold.
Six massive fires and a half-dozen smaller blazes erupted that night of Oct. 8 and burned simultaneously out of control across Sonoma, Napa, Mendocino and Lake counties. Yet Sonoma County emergency dispatchers were unprepared and understaffed for the unprecedented disaster, with few answers to give the hundreds of people calling their Santa Rosa headquarters in the chaotic first hours, according to records of the calls and interviews with top emergency officials.
Many of the callers were terrified, like the woman recorded in the call from Nuns Canyon Road.
But the dispatchers had not been trained on how to coach people trapped by wildfires, particularly ones as large, numerous and unpredictable as those in the October firestorm that killed 24 people in Sonoma County and destroyed 5,130 homes. The international accreditation organization that provides the training materials for dispatchers had no protocol for that type of life-or-death scenario.
Now, four months after the unprecedented wildfires, that gap in preparation is one of the clear shortfalls revealed amid scrutiny of the way emergency officials and agencies communicated with the public during the firestorm, when thousands of people were forced to flee from their homes without warning in the middle of the night.
“This situation in October, unfortunately, that's how we progress,” said Aaron Abbott, executive director of REDCOM, the county's fire and medical dispatch center. The agency has led an effort to improve dispatcher training by writing a new 911 script for response to massive wildfires in populated areas. In an era of mega blazes, the tool could influence operations for dispatchers across the country.
The work was fueled by questions that even veteran emergency dispatchers said lingered for them long after that night.
“We had very good, very experienced dispatchers that gave instructions by good improvisation working with (both) limited information and information overload,” Abbott said.
Many residents who were forced to flee their homes late Oct. 8 and early Oct. 9 remain outraged they were never warned about the fires approaching their neighborhoods. Sonoma County emergency officials chose to distribute warnings through automated calls to landline phones and opt-in messaging programs - including Nixle and SoCo Alert, which require users to sign up in advance - even though few people had registered to get those messages.
They did not consider the wireless alerts to cellphones that would have reached a far wider swath of the community, a decision that has drawn scathing criticism from many evacuees and fire survivors.
The only warning retired San Francisco police officer John Flaherty and his wife received the night of the fires was the doorbell, a new electric model that chimed when the power went out sometime about 1 a.m. Oct. 9. They have no landline at their home on Old Redwood Highway, and although their cellphones were nearby, they hadn't heard of Nixle or SoCo Alert and so hadn't signed up to get emergency alerts.
The back fence and trees were already on fire when they awoke, and they fled with little more than their two dogs.
“We could have left with a few more possessions, jewelry, memories,” said Flaherty, 63. “The more information people have, the better chance they have to survive and make good choices.”
The public outcry helped spur the state Office of Emergency Services to conduct an independent assessment of the county's emergency notification process. Sonoma County Administrator Sheryl Bratton asked the state to conduct the review in a November letter “so that we can learn from this event in order to improve our emergency operational response in the future.”
That night, Bratton said she was awakened about 11:30 p.m. by a phone call from Jim Colangelo, interim director of the county's Fire and Emergency Services department, saying multiple wildfires were burning in the county and first responders were calling for mandatory evacuations for communities in the hills west of Calistoga. She told him to open an emergency operations center at the designated site at the courthouse in Santa Rosa, and she headed there.