Getting more accurate emergency information to more people faster was the focus of a hearing held Tuesday in Carpinteria by state legislators, who heard from emergency planning and management personnel from throughout the state.
The best way to accomplish that will vary from county to county — what works in Santa Barbara County might not in more rural Lake County or in more urbanized San Diego County, based on testimony at the hearing.
“We don’t necessarily have a magic bullet,” said Assemblywoman Monique Limón, D-Santa Barbara, co-chair of the Assembly Select Committee on Natural Disaster Response, Recovery and Rebuilding.
But officials noted that with California facing a “new abnormal,” the state and counties must step up efforts to respond to California’s increasingly devastating wildfires and evacuate residents, if necessary.
“In Southern California, we expect fires to move miles in hours; we prepare for that,” said Thom Porter, chief of strategic planning for Cal Fire. But that type of fire is “moving north into areas not seen before. It’s not just weather, it’s not just humidity, it’s the length and extent of the drought,” he said.
There are a few elements that virtually all who testified seemed to agree will improve emergency officials’ ability to deal with wildfires and keep the public safe.
Officials said more equipment and personnel will be needed to deal with the increasing number and intensity of wildfires and to cover fire stations left unmanned as crews fan out across the state to battle them.
“We’re still recovering from the loss of jobs from the (great) recession,” said Mitch Medigovich, deputy director of logistics management for the Governor’s Office of Emergency Services. “But we need to look at a staffing model for year-round need. We need equipment and personnel to backfill when crews are sent to these mega events.”
Fully integrated systems that will allow various emergency response agencies to share data and communicate in real time are also a necessity for not only fighting fires but also evacuating people who are in harm’s way, officials said.
“It’s about having programs that are not proprietary so we can exchange information,” said Kim Zagaris, state fire and rescue chief for the Governor’s Office of Emergency Services. “We need communication systems that are resilient and reliable … each and every day.”
Speakers also indicated emergency planning and response officials and agencies will have to be able to rapidly adapt to a changing environment, unique conditions and individual disasters.
“It is clear each subsequent year will force us to face an ever-changing emergency landscape,” said Assemblyman Marc Levine, D-San Rafael, co-chair of the Assembly Select Committee on Natural Disaster Response, Recovery and Rebuilding.
Counties and agencies may need to develop a single source that can provide fast, accurate and up-to-the-minute information on what and where the disaster is taking place and which residents need to take what actions, or at least make sure the message is consistent from all sources.
“How do we make it one-stop?” asked Sen. Henry Stern, D-Los Angeles, noting in a recent disaster information was going out through 12 Twitter accounts, homemade Google maps were being posted and people were frantic for information. “It shouldn’t even matter what county they’re in. … There’s got to be a better way.”
Officials must find ways to alert everyone, using whatever methods are available.
“We need a way to reach our most vulnerable,” said Holly Crawford, director of the San Diego County Office of Emergency Services, who said 400,000 people in that county speak other languages and can’t understand or aren’t fluent in English.
Counties also must do whatever it takes to get all residents to sign up for alerts through one or more systems.
Crawford said San Diego County officials offered free tacos, Lyft rides and sandwiches as an incentive and ultimately 500,000 mobile phones were registered.
“Opt-in was not as successful as we hoped, even after the Thomas fire,” said Sen. Hannah-Beth Jackson, D-Santa Barbara, chairwoman of the Joint Legislative Committee on Emergency Management.
Jackson said Senate Bill 821 will allow counties to adopt an opt-out system, where contact information is provided by utility companies, and residents must have their information deleted if they don’t want to be contacted.
“I’d like to see every county do this,” Jackson said. “It will help save lives.”
The informational hearing by the Joint Legislative Committee on Emergency Management was the third in a series and focused on “strengthening California’s public warning system.” Future hearings will deal with other topics.