Sonoma County’s 911 dispatchers write new script to handle monster wildfires

Sonoma County emergency dispatchers were unprepared and understaffed for October's unprecedented disaster. New plans are ready should it occur again.|

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.

Emergency warnings

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.”

County's response

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.

“I thought it was going to be a fire in a discrete location. I had no idea what was going to happen,” said Bratton, who that night began running the county's response as the designated director of emergency services.

Two of the county's top emergency services officials, Christoper Helgren, the emergency services manager, under Colangelo, and Zach Hamill, the emergency services coordinator, were in Yosemite National Park for a conference and would not learn of the fires until past midnight. By that time, the Tubbs fire, which would go on to be the most destructive blaze in state history, had been burning for more than two hours and was advancing on Santa Rosa.

Those first hours, Bratton said she was focused on getting the county's emergency apparatus rolling - calling top staff into leadership positions - and she wasn't focused on the methods her emergency staff were using to issue warnings.

Bratton now says that warning system is among the main areas she wants the county to improve after the October fires, in addition to other areas like sheltering evacuees and directing volunteers. She's hired an independent facilitator to help debrief county staff on a report detailing what worked and what didn't in the county's handling of the disaster.

“People have this high expectation that government needs to notify them, and to be better at notifying folks,” Bratton said. “There's a lesson learned on that front.”

State report pending

Severe floods, fires and other emergencies in California over the past several years have exposed cracks in local emergency training and response across the state - chiefly, the way agencies warn the public, said Kelly Huston, deputy director of the California Governor's Office of Emergency Services.

“You can't experience a series of catastrophic events like we have had and not learn and change as a result of it,” Huston said.

Two state experts on emergency warnings have been working on the assessment, which was partly delayed because of the December wildfires and subsequent mudslides in Southern California, Huston said. They will provide a report to Sonoma County any day now, he said. The findings will be discussed in public Feb. 27 at a Board of Supervisors meeting.

Huston said the analysis of Sonoma County's response will be the first step toward a statewide examination of warning technology and protocols. Technology advances have fractured the way people get information, with a dwindling number of households keeping their landlines, so governments must be nimble in their preparations to get information to people who need it, he said.

“Other jurisdictions are looking at what happened in Sonoma and saying, ‘What should we be doing?'?” Huston said.

He said the Tubbs fire that burned from Calistoga to Santa Rosa will be a case study going forward for the ways emergency agencies must prepare for faster evacuations. The fire - which made a 12-mile run in about four hours - was less like a wildfire in some ways and more akin to the Oroville Dam crisis, when a near-failure led to the sudden evacuation of nearly 200,000 people downstream in Butte County.

“Things have changed - the climate has changed, our fuel loads are different,” Huston said. “You have to make improvements. There is a ton to learn from these disasters.”

Inundated with calls

The night of Oct. 8 there weren't enough dispatchers, firefighters, police officers, deputies or ambulance crews to respond to every person in need as blazes burned across a 40-mile front in Sonoma County.

By 11:08 p.m., when the woman called 911 from Nuns Canyon Road, the county's fire and medical dispatchers were already inundated, taking the number of calls in one hour that they normally receive in a day. About 1,400 calls poured into emergency dispatchers during the first 24 hours of the fire.

Many callers had questions dispatchers didn't know how to answer: Should I evacuate? Are fire engines on the way? How do I stay safe when flames are blocking my escape?

KT McNulty was supervising Sonoma County's 911 dispatch center that night and she took many difficult calls, including one from a panicked woman at a property at the end of a dead-end road.

“There's no road out,” the woman said, according to a recording of the 911 call which came in at 12:41 a.m. The woman said she and her husband were going to get into a neighbor's pool.

“If that's the safest place for you to be,” McNulty said in the recording.

Dispatchers didn't have trapped-by-wildfire instructions that would help them determine if pools offered those in harm's way any safety given the fires' scorching radiant heat. Pools turned out to help several people survive the fires, including the couple on the dead-end road. After that call, dispatchers around the room started asking people trapped by fire to look for a pool, McNulty said.

“We had to think of anything possible,” McNulty said. “Can you go up the road? Can you go down the road? Do you have a chainsaw? Is there a neighbor's gate you can get through?”

But even a pool offered no guaranteed refuge. Carmen Berriz, 75, died as she and her husband huddled in the pool of a Mark West Springs vacation home where they were staying. Her husband survived.

New tools for disaster

Emergency dispatchers don't typically improvise, but sometimes they must. They usually work with set instructions, asking 911 callers specific questions and then, depending on the answers, they use a script of instructions based on research-driven knowledge that can enable the best outcome.

On Wednesday afternoon, McNulty demonstrated how this might work on a call reporting a man with chest pains. Is he alert? Is he breathing normally? What color is his skin? Has he taken any medications, and does he have a history of cardiac issues?

McNulty punched answers to each question into her computer and was instantaneously prompted with the next question and ultimately instructions, which could be as simple as take an aspirin or as urgent as find a defibrillator.

But such detailed back-and-forth scripts weren't available for local dispatchers in October as callers asked for help amid the firestorm.

“Nobody had ever brought to us the issue of people trapped by wildfire in a short matter of time and asked what do they do,” said Mike Thompson, who heads the fire research division of the Utah-based International Academies of Emergency Dispatch, which writes and provides dispatch protocols to more than 3,000 agencies worldwide. “We were a little bit surprised.”

Wildfire veterans know the first thing a person being overrun by a wildfire should do is head for the areas already burned, said Thompson, a career firefighter who retired as a battalion chief in Rapid City, South Dakota. In October, that often wasn't possible in the fast-moving flames that engulfed entire neighborhoods.

“We were scrambling to come up with what we need to do because if it happened once it will probably happen again,” Thompson said. “The wildland fire industry has been seeing unprecedented fire behavior for several years now.”

After the fires, Abbott, the county REDCOM executive director, and his team went to work drafting new protocols for dispatchers and reviewing them with Thompson's group.

They developed a list of questions for dispatchers to ask callers: Is there a dirt area or grassy clearing, a culvert or wall that might provide shelter from radiant heat or flames? Is there a body of water nearby deep enough for people to submerge?

They also outlined advice that dispatchers could give to people in a fire zone: Keep your clothes dry if you're outside a body of water because a person could be burned as the fire's radiant heat causes the clothing to steam.

“If there's a place with loose soil, can you dig a hole quickly and cover yourself up?” Thompson said. “They're kind of like our active shooter instructions - it's the last-ditch effort to stay alive.”

The dispatch academy will finalize and release the instructions to the dispatch centers it accredits across the United States and other parts of the world by June or July, Thompson said. Sonoma County dispatchers were given a draft of the instructions on Feb. 7.

“We have a lot of really intelligent, hardworking people in here who drew from their experience to figure out what to tell people,” Abbott said. “But there's nothing like a well-researched, well-studied protocol to provide the best outcome.”

You can reach Staff Writer Julie Johnson at 707-521-5220 or On Twitter @jjpressdem.

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