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Lessons from the 2017 Northern California wildfires spur new approach to public warnings

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For more emergency information and to sign up for Sonoma County’s SoCo Alert messaging program, click here.

What does it take to warn people about an immediate threat to their lives and homes?

The answer is dramatically different today than it was in October 2017 when wildfires erupted across Northern California on a hot and dry Sunday night. Warning plans built on outmoded landline telephone calls and voluntary alert programs proved little help to most of the more than 100,000 people in the North Bay forced to flee for their lives.

Forty people died across the region in the firestorm, including 24 victims in Sonoma County, spurring a painful reckoning over the need to more effectively warn people about the potential and imminent danger of widespread natural disasters.

The same urgent message was underscored last year by the frightening toll in Butte County, where 85 people perished in the Camp fire.

Armed with about a half- dozen revamped and new technical tools, emergency and public safety officials now have a different philosophy for emergency notifications than they did before: warn early and often.

“Our experience was so sharp, so deeply felt not only within Sonoma County but across the country,” said Christopher Godley, who was brought on last year to lead and revamp the county’s emergency division. “People are now more willing to look into alerts and warnings as being a significant area of investment, not just, ‘Let’s buy software or put sirens on a pole.’ ”

In an age when people depend on cellphones, the fires underscored the crucial role telecommunication companies play in emergency notices, said state Sen. Mike McGuire, D-Healdsburg. He described a gap that remains between what those companies know and what they share — a hole he’s trying to fill with legislation introduced earlier this month that would require companies to report outages impacting 911 services.

“We shouldn’t have to legislate common sense,” McGuire said.

The North Coast lawmaker said the threat to public safety posed by California’s multi-year drought and worsening fire conditions was already abundantly clear in 2015 after the Valley fire forced thousands to flee in Lake County, killing four people. Then again in 2017, wildfires laid bare the crucial need for earlier and more effective warnings to alert people in harm’s way. McGuire lamented change didn’t come fast enough for the community in and around Paradise overtaken by the Camp fire.

“Shame on us if we’re not turning these glaring weaknesses into lessons and making them strengths,” McGuire said. “We need to learn from mistakes in the past to ensure they don’t happen again because this new reality (of big wildfires) is not going away.”

If a disaster struck today in Sonoma County, the toolbox for public warnings includes:

-Automated phone calls through SoCo Alert, the county’s opt-in warning program

-Pushed notifications from local authorities onto cellphones through the federal Wireless Emergency Alert system

-Warnings broadcast on TV and radio stations

-Social media alerts, including through Nixle.com, a service used by local law enforcement

-Specialized “hi-lo” sirens on Sonoma County sheriff’s patrol cars, used to signal people to be on alert and seek out additional information

-Neighbors warning neighbors

By late summer, emergency officials in Sonoma County will be able to send emergency messages through weather radios — perhaps the most dependable way to alert the public in difficult circumstances when the power is likely to fail, according to Godley.

For more emergency information and to sign up for Sonoma County’s SoCo Alert messaging program, click here.

The county installed an additional radio transmitter on Sonoma Mountain that also will provide weather data. Officials are applying for a federal grant that would allow the county to provide thousands of emergency radios to residents.

Sonoma County and Santa Rosa also have applied for a federal grant to install emergency sirens, though local managers question the effectiveness of sirens and the maintenance costs.

Sonoma County Sheriff Mark Essick said residents demanded faster and more frequent information from government officials during the fires — and that public outcry caused public safety professionals to move away from long-held beliefs that they should wait to issue public messages until they knew precisely what was taking place.

“What we really learned is the public was willing to forgive us on accuracy if we could get it out more quickly,” Essick said.

Today, a growing network of fire detection cameras provide views from 11 locations on Sonoma County ridges and peaks and the video feed is available to dispatchers, firefighters and the public.

And when a fire breaks out or another incident threatens public safety, fire agencies will send additional personnel to the scenes with the designated purpose of relaying critical messages to dispatchers, emergency managers and residents.

“Clearly there was a recognition within the larger emergency response community after the Sonoma fires that there was a need to build out in a more effective way an alert and warning program,” said Caroline Thomas Jacobs, chief of the state’s emergency operations and warning centers within the Office of Emergency Services.

The devastation in Sonoma County and Santa Rosa spurred the Federal Communications Commission to dust off a stalled plan to revamp its Wireless Emergency Alert program, which allows government agencies to push urgent messages onto cellphones.

Some of those changes — increasing the length of messages and requiring that cellphone companies improve the capacity for targeting certain geographic areas, such as neighborhoods — should take effect later this year.

Last year, the federal government held the first national test of the Wireless Emergency Alert program since its creation in 2012, followed three weeks later by a local test in Sonoma County.

Those alerts have limits. Older cellphone models may not have all the features needed to get such messages, and some phones allow users to turn off the feature. Cellphone companies also have varying capacities and policies for targeting messages to geographic areas.

In California, a new law passed last year requiring the state to establish first-ever standards governing emergency public warning programs used by the state’s 58 counties. A committee spent the last year developing those guidelines and released a draft in March, Thomas Jacobs said.

Sonoma County has transformed its emergency services division from a department with two fulltime and two part-time staff and an annual budget of $840,000 into a $2.4 million program with 12 staff, including two people focused on public warnings and communication.

Santa Rosa emergency preparedness coordinator Neil Bregman said the fires helped spur the creation of an entirely new countywide plan to help get real-time emergency information from the field and into the hands of the right people — a network that wasn’t entirely in place in 2017.

They’ve also poured resources into educating the public about where to look for emergency information.

“That night was overwhelming and fast-moving for everyone,” Bregman said. “Knowing what we know now, if we see a situation like that … all of our resources would go to waking people up and moving them out of harm’s way.”

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

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