Sonoma County

State Report Finds Sonoma County Fire Warnings ‘Misunderstood'

Four months after the devastating fires in the North Bay, an independent report released by state officials on Monday found Sonoma County’s emergency warning procedures were “uncoordinated and included gaps, overlaps and redundancies.”

State investigators focused on emergency managers’ decision to not activate an Amber alert-style message called a Wireless Emergency Alert, or WEA, that could have warned hundreds of thousands of people throughout the community to evacuate their homes during the fires. Investigators determined this decision was a “judgment call based on experience, previous policy discussions, and perceived knowledge of the situation.” Further, the report said, “The Assessment Team learned that the Emergency Manager’s decision was also influenced by a limited awareness and understanding of the WEA System and outdated information regarding WEA’s technical capabilities.”

Two staffers with expertise in alert and warning systems from the California Governor's Office of Emergency Services, put together the independent review, at the request of Sonoma County Administrator, Sheryl Bratton. The 34-page report concluded county emergency officials had an outdated understanding of how their warning system technology worked.

While Sonoma County started issuing alerts to the public as early as 10:51pm the night the fires broke out, the report found the efforts “lacked reliable, timely, and coordinated situational awareness as to the scale, size, and scope of the fires’ growth, character, and movement.”

Christopher Helgren, who previously served as Sonoma County’s Emergency Manager at the time of the fires, told NBC Bay Area’s Investigative Unit in an exclusive interview that the county worried a mass alert would have caused confusion and traffic jams. Helgren was re-assigned last week to a different role in risk management.

However, state investigators found that county officials did not know about recent upgrades to the alert technology, which allowed for targeted alerts that could produce multiple consecutive messages with instructions.

During the firestorm, the county opted to using two separate technical alert systems, both of which required residents enrol into the alert systems.

But the report found “during the early hours of the disaster, the County lacked reliable, timely, and coordinated situational awareness as to the scale, size, and scope of the fires’ growth, character, and movement.”

“I think you have a lot of different agencies that are getting information in the field ad trying to get that information out as quick as possible and in doing that I think we lacked coordination, “Jim Colangelo, interim director of the fire and emergency services department for Sonoma County said in an interview. “We need to make sure the public is informed but we have to make sure its coordinated so the messages aren’t confusing.”

The report recommended the county train its staff on the warning systems, how to use them and how to write effective alerts for the public. The county says it has already started this process and will discuss the report’s findings at a meeting on Tuesday at 830am at the Board of Supervisors Chambers.

Additional findings and recommendations included:

  • “Roles and responsibilities in the alert and warning process appear, in some cases, to have been assigned incrementally over time without clear, corresponding policy direction. This created confusion. In particular, the roles of the alert originator, authorized to direct the issuance of public alerts and warnings in accordance with policy and available doctrine, and that of the alert operator, trained in the technical operation of the warning tools, were sometimes unofficially conflated. As a result, several individuals interviewed for this assessment reported a lack of clarity with regard to the authority to make reporting decisions.”
  • “Both warning decision-makers and operators in Sonoma County reported having little or no training in the social science aspect that defines best practices on the thresholds and criteria guiding public warning issuance, the composition of warning messages, and the operational complexities of coordinating warnings.”
  • “Checklists or detailed procedures for deciding what warnings to issue, when, and in what form appeared to be almost entirely absent, except for a widely shared understanding that the basic required criterion was ‘imminent threat to life,
  • health or property.’ Likewise, the alert-message templates that were available were largely focused on flood emergencies or evacuation, leaving alert originators, and especially alert operators, to improvise alert message content. Having pre-scripted or pre-designated/scenario-based message templates could have been useful in the hasty evacuation scenario as a rapid tool to assist message originators in composing effective messages.”
  • “The overlapping roles of law-enforcement notification systems (primarily Nixle®) and the County’s SoCoAlert system appear to have resulted in duplication, inconsistency, and some confusion in messages transmitted to the public.”
  • “The technical systems for alert and warning dissemination appear to have functioned adequately, especially considering the severe impacts of the event on telecommunications infrastructure, such as cellular and radio repeater sites, and interconnecting fiber cables. Standard tactical operational practices in some cases appear to have exacerbated alerting challenges. As a result, while personnel at REDCOM and the City and County Emergency Operation Centers could hear the initial dispatch of fire units, they were unable to monitor the progress of each individual firefight and, in some cases, temporarily lost track of resources that were reassigned by Incident Commanders in the field. This further impacted overall situational awareness.”
  • “Because public alert and warning is a rapidly developing field, responsible officials need to make a special effort to stay abreast of changes in the available technologies and products. It is not sufficient to rely on commercial warning system vendors as government’s primary or only source of such information.”

“We’ve made progress. There’s a long way to go though,” Colangelo said. “It can’t be just the technology that’s going to save us. We need a more immediate system a more redundant system and a lot of public education.”

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