It’s time to fix our broken public warning system

“We have to build an emergency management system that is ready to handle the new situation we are dealing with.” Rob Lewin, Director, Santa Barbara County Office of Emergency Management

The summer of 1970 in California was the hottest anyone could remember. In the foothills away from the coast it hit a hundred degrees, day after day. California has seen its share of legendary droughts, but as the summer wore on, it kept not raining. Not a drop of rain since June.

Then came the Diablos—those high, hot winds that blow west from the inland deserts, sometimes gusting to hurricane strength. They blew all day long, transforming the forests and everything in them—shrubs, grass, bark, branches, even the soil itself—into fuel.

When the humidity dropped below two percent, firefighters sensed the epic battle aheadSeptember rolled around. The wind kept blowing, and the terrain kept getting drier. When the humidity dropped below two percent, firefighters sensed the epic battle ahead. They tied up loose ends, poured coffee, and settled in, waiting for the other shoe to drop.

And then, finally, it did. Someone set a match to tinder-dry grass along Fish Ranch Road in the Oakland Hills east of the University of California, Berkeley campus. Within minutes, the flames, feeding on dry coyote brush and pine trees and whipped by those Diablo winds, swept to the ridgetop and leaped into homes perched on the steep hillside above San Francisco Bay.

Within minutes, the flames, feeding on dry coyote brush and pine trees and whipped by those Diablo winds, swept to the ridgetop and leaped into homes perched on the steep hillside above San Francisco Bay.

In less than two hours, thirty-six homes were gone, and thirty-seven others were aflame. The heat was so intense that the houses exploded before the fire even got to them. And it was just getting started. It would be two weeks before it was done. By then, six hundred thousand acres would be burned, sixteen people would be dead, and seven hundred homes destroyed.

Formal investigations found that a series of mistakes had compounded the disaster.After thirteen days of fire, firefighters managed to stabilize the disaster. They had done a remarkable job considering the conditions they faced. But, despite their Herculean efforts, the public was stunned by the scale of the devastation and the fire services were criticized for what was widely perceived to be a mismanaged response. Formal investigations found that a series of mistakes had compounded the disaster. These were not tactical mistakes or a lack of resources but management and communication failures. [2]

National Commission on Fire Prevention and Control

To find a way forward, President Nixon created the National Commission on Fire Prevention and Control. In May 1973 it issued a report entitled “America Burning,” which concluded that “fire is a major national problem.” Congress ordered the US Forest Service to fund a five-year research program called the Firefighting Resources of Southern California Organized for Potential Emergencies program, or FIRESCOPE [3]. The FIRESCOPE research team created a brand new fire management system. It called this new system the Incident Command System, or ICS. Within ten years, ICS would be in use throughout Southern California and spreading across the country. Fifty years later, the Incident Command System is standard practice not only in the United States but in many other nations around the world. [4]

Because it works. It is simple to learn and use and versatile enough to bring order to the chaos of any type of disaster, not just wildfires. And it is scalable, meaning it can handle everything from a car accident to a catastrophic earthquake.

To find a way forward, President Nixon created the National Commission on Fire Prevention and Control in May 1973

Unlike our ordered and (sometimes) rational world, in the parallel universe of the disaster, confusion reigns. The normal rules of logic, even basic ones like cause and effect, don’t apply. ICS is the disaster professional’s toolbox. With it we can bring everybody - first responders to agency headquarters to the halls of government - together to create a path forward, to tell everybody what is happening and what they are responsible to do. Only with ICS can we bring order to a chaotic system.

But in spite of our best efforts, the aftermath of every catastrophe includes a period of finger-pointingBut in spite of our best efforts, the aftermath of every catastrophe includes a period of finger-pointing, and in California, it has already begun. With nearly 10,000 firefighters battling the staggeringly devastating Camp Fire raging across dry desert mountains, questions about emergency warning - what the people in the path of the fire were told and when they were told it - loom large.

Why, for instance, as the massive Camp Fire roared up the Sierra Nevada foothills toward the doomed town of Paradise, didn’t Butte County do more to warn its residents? The Butte County sheriff’s office says it did notify its citizens about the danger: over 10,000 emails and text messages were sent, and over 25,000 phone calls made. But only people who had registered with the County’s Code Red system received them. The more powerful system - FEMA’s Wireless Emergency Alert, or WEA - that pushes alerts to all cell phone users in an affected area, was not used.[5]

RELATED - Millions of cellphones, tablets and other portable devices ringing across the country to test Canada’s new public emergency alert system. Watch video.

Why aren't the feds doing more to warn people when a fire is headed their way? After, it has the scientists and the satellites to spot wildfires from space from their very first moments [6]. Shouldn’t the National Weather Service issue a warning when a wildfire shows up on Doppler radar? Why doesn’t it issue ‘fire products’ akin to the dozens of watches, warnings and alerts that it produces for weather threats?

Why doesn’t California have a statewide emergency warning system that can send an immediate and consistent message to its residents in the early minutes of a catastrophe?And what of the state? Why doesn’t California have a statewide emergency warning system that can send an immediate and consistent message to its residents in the early minutes of a catastrophe? Why instead does it choose to face a dangerous future with 58 county warning systems duct-taped together, with 58 different processes and capabilities? Because it is precisely these 58 counties that cannot help but be overwhelmed in the early minutes of the catastrophe, when they need to get resources to scene, understand and control the situation on the ground and rescue trapped seniors.

Bringing order to the chaos

Mistakes and blunders are unavoidable in the parallel universe, so these agencies shouldn’t be blamed for doing their jobs as they understand them. But the truth is that the public deserves better. And, as we face the trauma of climate change and 1000-year disasters on an almost monthly basis, it is time to bring order to the chaos of our sprawling and fractured public warning system.

Half a century after Fish Ranch Road, we need another national commission, a new FIRESCOPE, to create a 21st Century system that can warn us about looming wildfires, incoming missiles and all of the other bad things we can’t yet even think of.

SOURCES

[1] “Paradise Fire survivors say warnings were too little, too late”, By James Rainey, NBC News, 14 November 2018, accessed at https://www.nbcnews.com/news/us-news/paradise-fire-survivors-say-warnings-were-too-little-too-late-n935846

[2] California Office of Emergency Services, Some Highlights of the Evolution of the Incident Command System as Developed by FIRESCOPE, California Office of Emergency Services, March 26, 2003

[3] Daryl Osby, Ken Kehmna, Firefighting Resources of Southern California Organized for Potential Emergencies (FIRESCOPE), accessed at https://www.firescope.org/index.php

[4] The Fires that created an Incident Management System, by Dale D. Rowley, Case Study, accessed at http://www.uninets.net/~dsrowley/The%20Fires%20that%20Created%20an%20IMS.pdf

[5] “As California's deadliest wildfire closed in, evacuation orders were slow to arrive”, By Joseph Serna, Paige St. John and Rong-Gong Lin II, Los Angeles Times, 15 November 2018, accessed at http://www.latimes.com/local/lanow/la-me-paradise-fire-evacuations-20181114-story.html

[6] “Why it's so hard to issue a fire warning”, By Andrew Freeman, Axios, 15 November 2018, accessed at https://www.axios.com/california-camp-fire-why-no-warning-cb62b3a0-4820-4289-8be0-4ac9cebe2519.html

  1. Here are some answers…

    “Why aren’t the feds doing more to warn people when a fire is headed their way? After, it has the scientists and the satellites to spot wildfires from space from their very first moments”

    Because spotting a wildfire is one thing – knowing based on satellites that this is going to be “the big one” is not something a METEOROLOGIST a hundred miles away can know.

    “Shouldn’t the National Weather Service issue a warning when a wildfire shows up on Doppler radar?”

    No. Because the radar detects smoke. People can see smoke.

    “Why doesn’t it issue ‘fire products’ akin to the dozens of watches, warnings and alerts that it produces for weather threats?”

    They do. A Fire Weather Watch for extreme fire danger was issued by the NWS well ahead of this event.

    “Why doesn’t California have a statewide emergency warning system that can send an immediate and consistent message to its residents in the early minutes of a catastrophe? Why instead does it choose to face a dangerous future with 58 county warning systems duct-taped together, with 58 different processes and capabilities?”

    Because alert and warning is a local issue. You do NOT want someone in a cubicle hundreds of miles away who has never seen a wildfire determining what areas need to be alerted for an evacuation.

    “Because it is precisely these 58 counties that cannot help but be overwhelmed in the early minutes of the catastrophe, when they need to get resources to scene, understand and control the situation on the ground and rescue trapped seniors.”

    Well, somehow they were able to find time to use Facebook and CodeRED. WEA (IPAWS) is just another checkbox. They chose not to check it.

    Reply

  2. Kelly McKinney 2018-11-20 at 16:04

    We emergency managers must use every tool in our toolbox to get the word out about a risk to life

    And that message must be accurate and consistent across all players at all levels of government

    An enormous challenge for sure but we can overcome it. If we all come together….

    Reply

  3. You are right!
    This is not the first time in California.
    Unfortunately we heard that the military budged will raised.

    Reply

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