When danger looms, hesitation costs lives

One of the sad lessons from the 2017 firestorm that swept away neighborhoods in Sonoma County and killed dozens was that emergency officials must understand their alert systems so that they use them properly when lives are on the line. Now, we ask these questions again in the aftermath of the massive destruction that destroyed Paradise, Calif. Below are some steps each agency can take now to improve emergency communications plans.

Emergency alerts as the Camp Fire raged

Officials in Butte County used their opt-in system instead of triggering a Wireless Emergency Alert to virtually every cell phone in the vicinity. The fire grew with astounding speed — it grew to 10,000 acres within its first 90 minutes and rapidly overtook the town of Paradise, Calif.

Butte County Sheriff Kory Honea defended his agency’s reactions. While I will defer to others to evaluate whether the sheriff’s department did everything possible, all of us have this opportunity to review our plans so that similar tragedies may be avoided.

“There were notifications sent out, but … this fire was moving so rapidly we couldn’t keep ahead of it,” Honea said.

Review and revise your emergency alert plans 

Situations like a fast-moving wildfire are always going to be chaotic and confusing. Emergency officials must do everything possible to stay calm and focused, even when facts are unclear.  Planning must take into account the inherent confusion — and the risk of mistakes.

In Sonoma, officials did not use the WEA system because they thought it would alert too many people outside of the risk area and cause dangerous panic. In Butte, we are hearing that officials repeated what Sonoma did – and which did not work. The opt-in system had about 23,000 people signed up, about 10 percent of the county population. A WEA might have reached tens of thousands more.

Even more important is the question of timing. Might a short alert at the initial report of a fire helped? Something like:

“Firefighters responding to reported wildland fire outside of Paradise. Critically high fire danger throughout the area. Prepare now in case evacuation becomes necessary.”

Such a message would need to be supplemented with links to resources such as maps of evacuation routes or guidance on what to pack and bring — all of which likely were disseminated long before fire season. But we know that many people ignore everything about emergency planning until it is sometimes too late.

Things to do now to improve emergency communications

My advice for all agencies in wildfire risk areas is to do these things now:

Inventory all of your alert methods.

  • Do you have a plan for door-to-door notifications? Pre-assign sectors and routes if you can.
  • What other systems are in place?
  • Who has the authority to use each system?
  • Who knows how to use each system? Every agency should have at least three people trained and prepared to operate each or all systems.
  • Review your response area and its population.
    • What special populations exist?
    • Are there any groups that may need earlier notice to evacuate?
    • What language or other communications obstacles exist?
    • What are the evacuation routes?
      • If egress is limited, how can you sequence evacuation orders to reduce congestion?
      • What information do people need in order to get out safely?
  • Plan ahead.
    • Residents of risk areas must know how to evacuate long before emergencies occur.
    • Practice evacuations in high-risk areas, especially where routes are limited.
    • Communicate with people before fire season begins and frequently during the season. Make sure everyone knows how to get emergency information.
  • Practice. Practice. Practice. 
    • The only thing that comes close to experience in an emergency is experience in a well crafted practice session.
    • Put primary and secondary decision-makers into the “hot seat” to make difficult decisions about alerts in a training session.
    • Include other agencies likely to be involved in real emergencies.
    • Schedule and perform short drills frequently — at least once a quarter. Full-scale drills should be done annually.

From what I have seen, the town of Paradise had done many of these things, but the scale and speed of the Camp Fire overtook their plans. Even so, there is no doubt there could have been more done in advance of the flames. While nobody could forecast this fire specifically, the forecast high winds and dry conditions made the risk higher than ever.

Last year when similar conditions occurred in Southern California, fire departments in Los Angeles, Santa Barbara and Ventura counties made extra efforts to communicate in advance about evacuation procedures, alert systems and other emergency planning that individuals could do to stay safe. That should be the standard for all emergency agencies.

Related articles:

Firehouse.com: Did CA county fail on Camp Fire alerts?

San Francisco Chronicle: Camp Fire: Officials did not send Amber Alert-style warning as blaze hit Paradise

CNN: Many Camp Fire victims didn’t get emergency alerts. Those who did got them too late.

Interested in learning more about how a Communications Golden Hour® workshop can help you and your team improve your emergency communications? Find out more on my workshops page or contact me directly.