Sonoma County Staff Overwhelmed, Undertrained During Wildfires, Internal Report Finds

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Flames consume a home as out of control wildfires move through the area on October 9, 2017 in Sonoma County.  (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Sonoma County’s emergency response during the October 2017 wildfires was understaffed, its workers undertrained, and its emergency alerts did not live up to “public expectations,” according to a report from the county that is set to be discussed by the Board of Supervisors Monday.

The long-awaited 85-page report broke the county’s investigation into three components: Community Alert & Warning Program Assessment, Emergency Management Program Assessment and Emergency Operations Center (EOC) After-Action Report.

Community Alert & Warning Program Assessment

The report found that Sonoma County’s public warning system is on par with most counties throughout the state, but “public expectations” exceeded that standard.

Those expectations include more-timely emergency alerts with more information about residents' specific situations and receiving emergency alerts without signing up for them. Sonoma County used opt-in systems to send alerts to residents during the October wildfires, as well as sending sheriff’s deputies to homes in evacuation zones.

Recommendations in the report to address these concerns include:

  • Design an emergency alert system that can reach everyone, including areas with no cellphone service.
  • Standardize who has the authority to issue emergency alerts, as well as the triggers and threshold for activating those alerts.
  • Create a webpage with more information to which people receiving emergency alerts can be directed.
  • Implement a training program for workers who would have to use the alert system, including public safety leadership and emergency communications personnel.
  • Create two new full-time positions dedicated to managing and coordinating the system.
  • Design a system to more quickly identify the location and scope of a disaster.

Emergency Management Program Assessment

Sonoma County’s Emergency Management Program is slightly subpar compared to other California counties in terms of staffing, funding and operational capability, according to the report. The program’s staff reported issues in most of the categories analyzed.

This chart from Sonoma County's internal review of its emergency preparedness summarizes the internal staff assessment of the county’s current emergency management program capabilities based on categories identified in the Emergency Management Accreditation Program (EMAP).
This chart from Sonoma County's internal review of its emergency preparedness summarizes the internal staff assessment of the county’s current emergency management program capabilities based on categories identified in the Emergency Management Accreditation Program (EMAP). (County of Sonoma)

The report found that the county was not adequately prepared to recover after a disaster like the October wildfires, but found few issues with the administration of the county's Emergency Management Program.

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Staff did find issues of varying severity with the county's mitigation, preparedness, response and recovery efforts. There is currently no program that coordinates emergency plans between different county departments. Additionally, the report found that the Emergency Operations Center facility is “not capable of fully supporting large, complex, or extended-duration incidents,” like the October 2017 fires. The facility was built in 1974 and has undergone only minor renovations since then.

Recommendations in the report to address these concerns include:

  • Create three new full-time positions:
    1. Community Warning Program Manager
    2. Emergency Director
    3. Emergency Services Coordinator
  • Revise the Emergency Operations Plan and create a standardized Operation Area Plan to coordinate emergency plans between departments.
  • Consider introducing “sub-regional hubs” for unincorporated parts of the county, so those areas can better communicate with county emergency staff.
  • Train more staff members to fill a wider variety of roles during a disaster.
  • Find a new Emergency Operations Center or significantly remodel the current facility.
  • Provide more emergency preparedness information to the public, including a comprehensive “suite of materials and resources” that address all preparedness needs.

Emergency Operations Center After-Action Report

This section of the report is narrower than the other two. It examines only the actions in the Emergency Operations Center during the October 2017 wildfires.

Broadly, it found that emergency personnel were not able to gather enough information about the fires; the EOC was understaffed; the staff the EOC had were undertrained; EOC leadership was not clearly identified; and communication between local and regional agencies broke down.

Recommendations in the report to address these concerns include:

  • Provide more staff, processes, and new technology to gather information about disasters in real-time.
  • Recruit more liaison officers to communicate with local and regional agencies and officials.
  • Develop clear roles and responsibilities for elected officials during a disaster.
  • Develop a plan to ensure non-English speakers can access emergency information, as well as ensure alerts and warnings go out in Spanish.

You can read the full report here.