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.