State issues report on flaws in Sonoma County wildfire alerts
Sonoma County emergency staff failed to prepare for the kind of fast-moving wildfires that broke out in October and had an outdated understanding of technology they could have used to alert people in harm’s way, shortcomings that left people in the path of a deadly fire without any warning, state officials said in a report released Monday.
State experts on public warning technologies and procedures said Sonoma County’s plans and systems were “uncoordinated” when the fires broke out Oct. 8 and its warning capabilities “included gaps, overlaps, and redundancies,” according to the report produced by the California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services.
While focused on public warnings, the report also found the county had no protocols in place that night to help it assess the locations, magnitude and spread of the fires — a deficit stemming from a lack of preparation for the kind of coordination and communication needed between agencies during a fast-moving crisis, according to Mark Ghilarducci, California’s top emergency services official.
“The disaster, the events, got out in front of them. They could not catch up,” Ghilarducci said during a conference call Monday about the report.
The state’s independent review comes on the heels of public outcry over the lack of warnings in October as multiple fires menaced a 40-mile spread of eastern Sonoma County, from Lakeville Highway in the south to Geyserville in the north.
Following a series of stories by The Press Democrat, the county has changed its alerting policies and reassigned its emergency services manager, Christopher Helgren, chiefly responsible for the controversial decision to avoid using a government push-notification program called Wireless Emergency Alert that could have forced messages to people’s cellphones.
The state report’s findings underscore the shortcomings of the county’s strategy for warning people about imminent danger, which was to use opt-in messaging programs — through two different third-party programs, Nixle and SoCo Alert — that only reached people who had signed up beforehand in addition to landline telephones.
So while emergency officials began sending a series of warning messages to the public at 10:51 p.m. Oct. 8, few people received them because of limitations to the methods used by the county. The report also highlighted deficient training for county staff responsible for warning the public that resulted in confusion about who had authority to send public warnings and a lack of training on what effective emergency messages should say.
The county was prepared for emergencies that evolve at a slower pace, such as storms and floods, and less so for fast-moving fires requiring urgent public warnings and rapid evacuations, Ghilarducci said.
“Although they had systems in place — they had plans in place in who was going to issue alerts and how they were going to do that — they fell short,” Ghilarducci said. “There were gaps. There were shortcomings.”
County Administrator Sheryl Bratton, the county’s top emergency official during the fires, said the report was an accurate analysis of the county’s response, and its shortcomings, during the first 12 to 24 hours of the emergency.
Bratton said the county is going to launch a review of the emergency services division tasked with planning for worst-case scenarios. The small unit is located within the county’s embattled fire services department, which had no permanent director when the fires ignited in October. Among the considerations will be whether to shift the division to the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office, a common setup in other counties across the state.