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Read all of the PD's fire coverage here

A torrent of firsthand reports from firefighters, law enforcement and 911 callers on Oct. 8 confirmed a massive natural disaster was unfolding in the North Bay, but Sonoma County had no coordinated system in place to track the location and spread of the destructive fires that erupted that night.

The shortfall, documented in a state review and the subject of public scrutiny in the past four months, hampered the county’s attempt to warn people and direct them to safety, county supervisors acknowledged Tuesday in their first public meeting about the emergency response system.

“We could have saved lives if we’d had a better system of alerts,” said Supervisor Susan Gorin, who wept Tuesday as she described harrowing tales of escape by Sonoma Valley residents who told her they were never warned by local authorities of the firestorm, which killed 24 people in the county.

But what if the county had two dozen fire detection cameras that could have given emergency commanders an immediate view into what was happening on the ground? And what if a network of sirens had rousted entire communities out of bed when fires ignited after nightfall on that Sunday night and helped them evacuate earlier?

Such new technologies and disaster planning are among the measures Sonoma County could adopt to better prepare for the next major catastrophe, supervisors indicated in their wide-ranging discussion Tuesday with emergency experts from across the Bay Area and nation.

“Not knowing where the front line of the fire was, not knowing where to send crews, I have realized that played a very important role in how you send alerts,” said Supervisor David Rabbitt, who comes from a family of firefighters.

The October firestorm exposed gaps in the county’s preparation for emergencies, primarily its methods of communicating among emergency responders, with other local government agencies and with the public. The failures — documented in a state review published Monday and in reporting by The Press Democrat since the first week of the fires — have pushed county officials to consider an overhaul of the embattled emergency services division, which is charged with preparing for disasters. The options include transferring oversight of the department from the county administrator to the Sonoma County Sheriff.

Board members made no decisions on that front but were unanimous in their push to improve the county’s emergency unit and signaled their interest in embracing a variety of new systems, including emerging technologies and traditional methods, such as fire-detection cameras and community warning sirens.

“How do we stay ready to pounce?” said Supervisor James Gore, the board chairman.

Most fires are first reported in a 911 call, but the night of Oct. 8, dispatchers had no clear way to funnel the hundreds of first-hand reports coming in from Geyserville to the Sonoma Valley to other agencies, said Aaron Abbott, director of REDCOM, an independent agency that runs Sonoma County’s central fire and medical dispatch center. Dispatchers were fielding about 350 calls per hour at the emergency’s peak and had reports of more than 800 fire and hazard locations in the first 18 hours.

“That’s an enormous task to digest that information,” Abbott told supervisors. “The map becomes a giant blob of pins very quickly.”

Fire detection cameras are used in the Lake Tahoe area and San Diego County, said Graham Kent, director of the University of Nevada-Reno Seismology lab who helped develop a specialized fire detection camera used in those jurisdictions. Kent said the cameras help fire management officers quickly assess a fire’s location and threat, and make faster decisions about what resources to send.

“There’s no silver bullet, but what we are confident about is you would have known almost instantaneously exactly what you had,” Kent said. “You don’t have to wait for them to burn big.”

Sonoma County two years ago ruled out use of Amber Alert-type messages to warn people in a natural disaster, relying instead on sign-up programs with limited membership. The number of people registered for the SoCo Alert system, an opt-in third-party program that sends messages from both Sonoma County and Santa Rosa, has more than doubled, from about 12,000 on Oct. 8 to more than 28,500 as of this month, said Jim Colangelo, interim director of the county’s Fire and Emergency Services department.

The growth is a sign of encouraging progress, he said, but it underscores the county’s need to use multiple ways of reaching its roughly 500,000 residents as well as visitors in the area during disaster.

“It has to be one of the tools in our toolbox, and the toolbox has to be much more comprehensive,” he said.

County officials have said that if a similar disaster happened today, they would trigger the forced alerts to cellphones that can reach a much wider audience. The switch came in the wake of a public criticism over the county’s decision in 2016 to rule out such alerts in disasters, a move uncovered by The Press Democrat last year and faulted in a state report this week that said the county’s understanding and embrace of the wireless alerts was outdated.

“We need to learn the lessons to this event, which was an unprecedented disaster,” Colangelo said, noting that his department is helping the county produce a detailed after-action report looking at how the county functioned during the initial response. The report will include interviews with 72 personnel plus 26 additional group discussions.

“We have to understand there are a lot of other threats we face,” Colangelo said.

Leaders from nearby emergency departments outlined on Tuesday how their departments function during emergencies, showing a wide variation in size and structure for such public agencies.

In San Francisco, for example, a city of about 875,000 residents — and about 1.2 million people during the day — the emergency management department reports to the mayor and includes 20 full-time staff, plus collaboration with four public information officers. In Santa Clara, with about 2 million residents and 15 cities, the department has about 20 staff members.

In Alameda County, the emergency services unit is housed within the Sheriff’s Office. They have three full-time staff members, including a sheriff’s lieutenant and a civilian emergency manager, for a county with 14 cities and 1.7 million people.

For Santa Rosa, a city of nearly 180,000, the city’s emergency division is a “one-man show” said Neil Bregman, Santa Rosa’s emergency preparedness coordinator, a position within the fire department.

Sonoma County’s emergency services division has two full-time and two part-time staff and is currently without a top official after its manager, Chrisopher Helgren, was moved to another department this month. It was Helgren’s decision to rule out use of wireless emergency alerts in favor of the opt-in SoCo Alerts and Nixle warning system.

But even alerts pushed onto residents’ cellphones may not reach everyone, experts said. Chris Godley, a former emergency manager for San Jose and Marin County, told supervisors research had shown only about 30 to 40 percent of Wireless Emergency Alert messages made it to their intended targets, though he admitted the technology may have already improved on that front.

Renee Domingo, a former emergency services director in Oakland who was there during the deadly and destructive 1991 firestorm in the city’s hills, noted some of the other ways governments can communicate with the public about disasters. The city put several sirens in place to warn residents and regularly tested them, asking certain residents to report back that they heard the sirens’ distinct sounds to make sure they were still working properly. But Oakland also has engaged in regular public education efforts to encourage residents to be prepared, she said.

“It’s really a comprehensive program, and sirens are just one component,” Domingo said.

Staff Writer J.D. Morris contributed to this report. You can reach Staff Writer Julie Johnson at 707-521-5220 or julie.johnson@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @jjpressdem.

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