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‘You failed us:' Records show how Sonoma County reacted to warning shortfall in October fires

Records reveal county officials scrambled amid scrutiny Documents obtained by The Press Democrat shed new light on the way county officials reacted to media scrutiny and public criticism of the decision not to send more widespread emergency warnings.

The wildfires were still raging out of control early Oct. 12 when a top Sonoma County official warned elected leaders of a simmering controversy that was about to become a public relations nightmare.

Journalists were beginning to scrutinize the county's failure to send mass cellphone alerts during the first hours of the Oct. 8 firestorm.

Peter Rumble, then a deputy county administrator who was helping run the county's civilian emergency command center, told the Board of Supervisors in a 5:26 a.m. email that at least one Bay Area news outlet was preparing a critical story about “what they see as inadequate notice of evacuation” as the fires spread.

Rumble wasn't worried, describing the media attention on warnings as a “consistent theme” during emergencies.

“I'm a little surprised it is coming so soon, however,” he wrote.

Nearly eight hours later, the situation became more urgent. A television news crew unexpectedly showed up at the emergency center, another county official wrote at 1:06 p.m. in a nine-member group text message that included all five supervisors.

The TV crew had interviewed the county's emergency manager, Christopher Helgren. The story could be negative, Assistant County Administrator Christina Rivera texted the group.

Some included on the Oct. 12 text thread were dismayed. They viewed the scrutiny of warnings as premature and felt inclined to defend the county's emergency response so far.

Peter Rumble, a former deputy Sonoma County administrator, is now CEO of the Santa Rosa Metro Chamber. (John Burgess/The Press Democrat)
Peter Rumble, a former deputy Sonoma County administrator, is now CEO of the Santa Rosa Metro Chamber. (John Burgess/The Press Democrat)

“Special place in hell for people who want to play the blame game right now,” Rumble texted about 5:38 p.m.

The exchanges, obtained by The Press Democrat through a public records request, show how officials scrambled to respond to growing public backlash and critical media coverage of the failure to issue more widespread warnings about the firestorm.

The communications are included among more than 1,000 pages of Sonoma County documents, including emails, text messages and reports shared among county supervisors and several top county officials from the outset of the wildfires through February.

The records show how county leaders were confronted by intense public vitriol regarding emergency alerts for months after the fires were contained. And they reflect some of the internal steps county leaders took to respond to that criticism and prevent it from resurfacing the next time disaster strikes.

Taking focus off response

One county official was particularly displeased to hear journalists came to the emergency operations center to ask about the alerts in the afternoon of Oct. 12, four days after the fires erupted.

TV cameras don't belong in that setting, Supervisor Lynda Hopkins wrote in the group text thread.

“Vultures circling while we are still issuing evacuation notices,” Hopkins said. “A countywide evacuation notice would have resulted in chaos and even more fatalities.”

Supervisor Lynda Hopkins listens during a town hall meeting with Roseland community residents in Santa Rosa, California on April 18, 2017. (Alvin Jornada/The Press Democrat)
Supervisor Lynda Hopkins listens during a town hall meeting with Roseland community residents in Santa Rosa, California on April 18, 2017. (Alvin Jornada/The Press Democrat)

In addition to Hopkins, the group text message included the other four elected supervisors - Shirlee Zane, James Gore, David Rabbitt and Susan Gorin- as well as Rumble, Rivera, County Administrator Sheryl Bratton and Rebecca Wachsberg, a deputy county administrator who was the county's primary spokeswoman at the time.

Hopkins, in the same message, offered praise for Helgren, the emergency manager who would retire in March under heavy scrutiny.

“I'm sure Chris did a great job. You all have made all the right calls, and I will defend every decision that our EOC has made,” Hopkins texted.

Rabbitt subsequently texted to the group that The Press Democrat also wanted to access to the emergency operations center for a potential story. He suggested the story - which never happened - could present an opportunity to “counter” the emerging storyline about the county's alerting shortfalls.

Rumble instead proposed the county work with its spokespeople to “take the circus away from our response efforts,” perhaps through sit-down interviews at another government office.

Rumble, who said he worked graveyard shifts in the emergency operations center as long as 16 or 17 hours at the height of the wildfires, agreed in an interview that the public and media should pay close attention to the county's emergency notification process. But the debate began too soon, in his view.

The Press Democrat's first story on the county's decision to limit the use of emergency alerts was published Oct. 12, the same day multiple other outlets ran stories on the issue.

“If we're going to ask those questions, fine, let's ask them and answer that,” Rumble, who is now CEO of the Santa Rosa Metro Chamber, said in a May interview. “But we're still trying to save lives at that point. And anything that happens to distract and pull away and create a circus on something that is important but isn't about saving lives right at that time - that was a problem. A big problem.”

A firefighter struggles to protect a home from catching fire in Coffey Park, Monday Oct. 9, 2017 in Santa Rosa. (KENT PORTER/The Press Democrat)
A firefighter struggles to protect a home from catching fire in Coffey Park, Monday Oct. 9, 2017 in Santa Rosa. (KENT PORTER/The Press Democrat)

Outdated grasp of technology

The controversy over emergency alerts has proven to be the most sustained source of criticism regarding Sonoma County's handling of the firestorm response, as many residents questioned why they never received any official notice about the rapidly unfolding disaster. Both an external state government review and the county's own internal audit identified major shortcomings in the county's emergency notification system.

Helgren last year said he decided in 2016 not to utilize technology that can force warnings onto people's cellphones during local disasters. He wasn't confident the system, called Wireless Emergency Alerts, could be targeted to an area smaller than the entire county - an inaccurate belief, according to state officials who later said Helgren's decision was “influenced by a limited awareness and understanding” of the system as well as “outdated information regarding WEA's technical capabilities.”

But the records released by the county show Helgren wasn't alone in misunderstanding the wireless notification technology, which is commonly used to broadcast Amber Alerts about abducted children. A representative of OnSolve, the Florida company that provides the software powering Sonoma County's warning system, SoCo Alert, told a county emergency coordinator Oct. 12 that it was “impossible” to target Wireless Emergency Alerts to detailed geographic areas.

Troy Harper, general manager for the public sector at OnSolve, warned in the 4:03 p.m. email that sending too many emergency alerts was “almost as dangerous as under-alerting,” contending that notifying a large number of people who weren't affected by the disaster “would have exasperated an already critical incident.”

“Further inundation of the 911 system by citizens asking for evacuation clarification when they live outside of the evacuation area would impede true life safety emergency calls,” Harper wrote. “In addition, evacuation notifications outside the area of impact would likely hamper emergency units response times due to extreme and unnecessary traffic.”

Zachary Hamill, the emergency coordinator who received Harper's email, forwarded the message to another county staff member who later distributed talking points to supervisors about the county's emergency notifications.

“At that time in our response efforts, the information on alerts and warnings was developed with input from Fire and Emergency Services and their partners, such as OnSolve,” Jennifer Larocque, the county staff member who distributed the talking points, said in an email last week. “As the County transitioned out of emergency response, additional information was compiled from other agencies and experts.”

Supervisor James Gore comments during a February 21, 2017 board meeting. (Christopher Chung/The Press Democrat)
Supervisor James Gore comments during a February 21, 2017 board meeting. (Christopher Chung/The Press Democrat)

The talking points mirrored some of the earliest public comments made by county officials during the flurry of media coverage about the emergency alerts. In The Press Democrat's story on the topic Oct. 12, Hamill said if he had notified “half a million people, many wouldn't have read the whole message and would have thought it was an order for them to evacuate.”

Hamill said he stood by the decision at the time. Helgren made similar points in a November interview with The Press Democrat.

But by late February, in advance of a widely anticipated review from a state government agency, the county had changed its tune. Gore, who became board chairman in January, said in a Feb. 22 meeting with Press Democrat reporters and editors that the county's emergency warning failures “absolutely” endangered lives. In Sonoma County, 24 people died in the wildfires.

“We should have woken up the world,” Gore said.

3rd District Supervisor Shirlee Zane attends the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors meeting in Santa Rosa on Tuesday, July 10, 2018. (BETH SCHLANKER/ PD FILE)
3rd District Supervisor Shirlee Zane attends the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors meeting in Santa Rosa on Tuesday, July 10, 2018. (BETH SCHLANKER/ PD FILE)
Sheryl Bratton, the Sonoma County Administrator, attends the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors meeting in Santa Rosa on Tuesday, July 10, 2018. (Beth Schlanker/ The Press Democrat)
Sheryl Bratton, the Sonoma County Administrator, attends the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors meeting in Santa Rosa on Tuesday, July 10, 2018. (Beth Schlanker/ The Press Democrat)

Fumbled report to board

As public criticism and media attention on the lack of more widespread wildfire warnings mounted, county officials began to take action. On Nov. 27, Bratton sent a letter to Mark Ghilarducci, the director of the state emergency services office, requesting an independent review of the way the county notified the public about the fires.

While that review was underway, the Board of Supervisors had its first public discussion about the emergency notifications during the firestorm.

At the Jan. 29 meeting, confusion arose over an “internal review” Helgren referenced as he briefed supervisors about the steps his division had taken to develop an “even more robust and timely alert and warning” capacity. Zane and Rabbitt were disappointed Helgren had not provided a detailed written account of the analysis underpinning his verbal presentation.

The following week, Zane grew impatient after reading a Press Democrat letter to the editor calling on every member of the board to resign. She texted a picture of the letter at 9:23 a.m. to Bratton and Gore Feb. 8, lamenting that such criticism was persisting and she wasn't “seeing action.”

“Every day that we wait to make decisions, we look stupider and stupider,” Zane said. “I don't blame the public for being outraged at all. I'm outraged.”

Zane also questioned why Helgren still hadn't sent in a written report providing more detail about the presentation he made to supervisors the week before.

“I think there is valuable information in seeing his report and an external report done by OES,” Zane texted, referring to the pending state Office of Emergency Services review. “I would like to see if there are discrepancies.”

But at 10:46 a.m., Bratton emailed supervisors a memo from Helgren, whose presentation the week before had “caused more questions than it answered,” she said.

In the memo, Helgren told supervisors he had no internal report to provide them.

“Unfortunately, my reference did not accurately convey what evaluation efforts are currently underway,” Helgren wrote. “I was not clear about when the Board and the public could expect to review findings and provide feedback on a more detailed assessment of the event.”

Later that month, Helgren was reassigned to a different role. He retired weeks later in March at age 56.

Bratton, through a county spokesperson, and Zane declined to comment about whether the confusion played any role in Helgren's departure, citing confidentiality requirements on personnel issues.

But Zane remains frustrated she hasn't seen a written report from Helgren.

“I had no way of being able to follow the sequence of events without a written report,” she said in a May interview. “When did we put out the Nixle alerts? When did we put out the SoCo Alerts? When did the sheriff say, ‘I'm sending my deputies to knock on doors in the other part of Fountaingrove or Hidden Valley?' These were my constituents that ran for (their lives). I wanted to know what happened when.”

Rincon Ridge in Fountaingrove, Wednesday Oct. 25, 2017 in Santa Rosa, burned by the Tubbs fire. (Kent Porter / Press Democrat) 2017
Rincon Ridge in Fountaingrove, Wednesday Oct. 25, 2017 in Santa Rosa, burned by the Tubbs fire. (Kent Porter / Press Democrat) 2017

Public registers dismay

For months, members of the public emailed county supervisors and staff members with critical and even scathing comments about the firestorm warnings, or lack thereof.

Pam Rumberg, who lost her home in the Mark West Springs area outside Santa Rosa, emailed Helgren Oct. 15 to say she was “very disappointed” and “downright upset” about the county's fire alerts. The subject of her email: “You failed us!”

“You think you made the right choice. You made no choice and now the thousands of lives that are shattered can never be replaced,” she wrote in her 7:15 a.m. message. “The blood and anger and sadness is on your hands. We are beyond upset with your decision and have every right to be.”

Two days earlier, someone who identified themselves as a retired police officer experienced with emergency communications reached out to Hamill.

The retired officer, whose name wasn't included in the county record, was “very concerned about the lack of notification to residents around Sonoma County.” In a 10:23 a.m. email, the sender wondered if the failure ultimately led to the unnecessary “death(s) of many people who had no idea that the fire was approaching their homes."

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Twenty-four people died in the fires in Sonoma County and nearly 5,300 homes were destroyed.

“Had a countywide alert been sent out, it would have reached more people and likely saved additional lives and property,” the email said. “My preliminary opinion is that the failure to use the Wireless Emergency Alert System (as it was intended) was a grave mistake and it may have directly caused the death of many.”

The messages were not uniformly negative. Among the records provided to The Press Democrat was an emailed copy of a LinkedIn message sent to Helgren Oct. 12.

“I want to personally thank you for what you were able to do to help our community,” wrote Alena Ragueneau, who was “appalled” by reporters “positioning” while the community was in such a “dire situation.”

“(I) want you to know that without your infrastructure and planning, that much more devastation would have been seen,” Ragueneau wrote.

Additionally, a former longtime county emergency manager reached out in March to an aide of Gore's, raising some points that appeared to shift blame away from Helgren. The county has “always been viewed throughout the state as having a strong emergency management team,” wrote Sandy Covall-Alves, who “truly” believed “that was the case on those fateful days.”

Still, the majority of the county correspondence reflected deeply negative and often angry commentary about the alerting failure.

One of the harshest messages came from a man identified only as Rob, a Santa Rosa resident. The message was received Nov. 22 by one of Zane's aides. In it, the sender sounded off about "illegal evictions" and evoked the suicide of Zane's husband seven years ago, suggesting others might face a similar fate rather than wait for her "continued ineffective governance."

“First your collective County emergency alert system failure, something that County employees and yourself should be held criminally responsible for involuntary manslaughter,” the message said. “Your fake facade of an appeal for folks to seek therapy on the news at this time of crisis, while logical, rings hollow As is no doubt your soul (sic).”

Zane said she hadn't seen the message, which she dismissed as “crap.”

Bratton said she understands the intense anger of fire survivors who endured “harrowing” escapes as flames approached late Oct. 8 and early Oct. 9.

“That is a very traumatic experience,” Bratton said in an interview. “I empathize with them, and having to go through that and feeling like, ‘Hey, had you only sent me a cellphone notice a couple hours before, I could have been prepared, or I wouldn't have had to endure what I endured in terms of having to get out so quickly.'”

Santa Rosa's Coffey Park neighborhood, devastated by the October 2017 wildfires, has slowly begun to recover. Photo taken February 20, 2018. (CHAD SHURMICK/The Press Democrat)
Santa Rosa's Coffey Park neighborhood, devastated by the October 2017 wildfires, has slowly begun to recover. Photo taken February 20, 2018. (CHAD SHURMICK/The Press Democrat)

New warning program

In the wake of two reviews on the disaster alert process - the state's and their own - county supervisors have begun to reform the emergency management division and the way they warn the public about disasters.

Supervisors agreed to hire more emergency management staffers, some of whom will help develop a new community warning program. The county may later move the division under the jurisdiction of the Sonoma County Sheriff's Office.

A countywide test of the Wireless Emergency Alerts system is also planned for September.

Bratton said the Office of Emergency Services review showed that, in the eyes of the state at least, there's no such thing as alerting the public too much during disasters - a direct pivot from the advice given by the county's emergency alert system vendor on the fourth day of the fires.

That advice has now been banished - though the vendor remains - as officials have vowed to warn the public early and often.

Gore has said he now prefers “imperfect, relentless communication” instead of the “command-and-control communication” techniques he thinks fell short in October.

“I think it comes down to what's in your message,” Bratton said. “Society or the community expects more.”

You can reach Staff Writer J.D. Morris at 707-521-5337 or jd.morris@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @thejdmorris.

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