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Our Future After the Fire: Emergency alert system

What emergency managers learned during the devastation of the Camp Fire is that tech-driven alert information can break down. 2019 will see some changes.

Posted: May 10, 2019 8:10 AM
Updated: Jun 7, 2019 10:57 AM

CHICO, Calif. – When the Camp Fire broke out, emergency managers, law enforcement and area city leaders primarily used the Code RED alert system to notify those in danger.

But what those emergency managers learned during the devastation, is that tech-driven information can break down; in the form of burned cell towers and comprised infrastructure.

Butte County Sheriff Kory Honea says there are some situations that develop so rapidly that trying to get emergency warnings out to the public across multiple platforms is difficult. He says when relying on technology, which is the most cost-effective method, the process can be problematic when and if the technology goes down.

New California state legislation is designed to address some of those issues. Cal OES was directed by lawmakers to implement statewide emergency alert protocols on or before July 1, 2019. Working ahead of schedule the agency unveiled new guidelines in March 2019.

Former Governor Jerry Brown signed the legislation two months before the Camp Fire. Drafted by District Two Senator Mike McGuire after the 2017 North Bay Fires, the California Emergency Services Act mandates a uniform set of emergency alert standards for all 58 California counties.

Some of those standards include improving resiliency in the communications infrastructure, providing local jurisdictions with sample messages for emergency events, educating the public and first responders to all avenues available for communication and identifying additional funding sources to help municipalities enhance existing programs.

Cal OES Chief of Response Operations, Caroline Thomas-Jacobs, says emergency agencies have learned a great deal over the past two years. She says Cal OES developed the guidelines and put in place ‘best practices’ which in some cases are already being used by some jurisdictions. Now, others can follow suit.

For citizens, those best practices include taking more personal responsibility for the safety of yourself and family. For first responders it means improved coordination and communication between agencies.

Chico Police Chief Michael O’Brien says there are always steps his department can take to perform better. He says he does not like learning from tragedy but in the case of the Camp Fire, he says the emergency generated valuable information.

He says first responders must provide consistent messaging and use multiple platforms to reach as many people as possible, including local news outlets, Code RED, social media and personal contact with the public.

When the Camp Fire threatened East Chico, Chief O’Brien says officers knocked on over 500 doors to alert citizens. And when it comes to evacuations, he says he takes the lead from his expert, which in this case, is the Chico Fire Department Chief, Steve Standridge.

Chief O’Brien says he has a responsibility to use an evacuation order in the city if his fire chief deems such action necessary. He says if the fire chief tells him a specific region of the city is facing a threat and should be evacuated, he is going to listen and make the determination.

As the 2019 fire season move forward, the Chico Fire Department has also put new streamlined evacuations plans in place. Rather than having citizens rely on and memorize specific zones, they are encouraging everyone to sign up for the Code RED alert system.
With memories of the Camp Fire still fresh in most everyone’s minds, the common theme expressed by the emergency managers who spoke with Action News Now Morning Anchor Julia Yarbough, was specific: personal responsibility.

They say no alert system is foolproof and not everyone will receive warnings in situations that happen fast. They say personal responsibility could be what help saves your life.

Police Chief O’Brien says everyone must have personal preparedness as part of your readiness and urges everyone to listen to the experts. He says when emergency managers say go, you need to go.

Cal OES says because not everyone will always receive warnings, it is important for individuals to understand they must have family emergency supplies ready and know where to go and how they are going to communicate.

Butte County Sheriff Honea says when it comes to emergency situations, it comes down to personal accountability and responsibility. He says you must be prepared to protect yourself and family during disasters, because there is no way first responders can be everywhere.

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A trough of low pressure is moving over northern California this afternoon and tonight, and that will increase our wind speed and raise our area's fire danger even further. The wind will be weaker Thursday, but the smoke will get worse.
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