March 16, 2019
(Today's commentary was printed in the March 15 edition of the Sacramento Business Journal.)
Something must be done to safeguard lives during wildfires and put a stop to the ever-escalating death toll. Getting business involved may help.
Since October 2017, 130 Californians have died in California wildfires, beginning with Sonoma County’s Tubbs Fire, which claimed 28 lives.
Crisis management officials later were criticized for not immediately sending an evacuation warning, reportedly fearing widespread panic.
Less than a year later, eight people died in Redding’s Carr Fire. As was the case in Sonoma County, some Carr Fire survivors complained they received no evacuation warning.
Then last November, 85 residents of Paradise and nearby communities perished in the Camp Fire, California’s worst ever. Once again, survivors complained about the lack of a useful warning.
“Nobody knew,” one told the Bay Area News Group. “There was nothing — no notification.” Another survivor said, “The system failed. Technology, the thing I trust most, failed.”
Are any lessons being learned when mobile phone alerts fail during these tragedies? Are those lessons applied throughout California’s counties to improve wildfire alert systems?
You’d hope so, but fire after fire, more people die without any obvious evidence that county governments have learned how to effectively alert citizens in fast-moving wind-driven wildfires.
I’m suggesting that California businesses with crisis-response experience can play a useful role in helping government officials accomplish their critical mission.
A private-public partnership would bring together government crisis planners and their civilian counterparts -- public relations and corporate personnel experienced in preparing crisis communications plans for their clients and companies.
The partnership would examine current warning practices, study what has gone wrong in past fires, and recommend refinements for adoption by county governments, which are responsible for sending alerts to the public.
It’s seems obvious that some local governments have put too much faith in communications systems that are now failing.
Governor Gavin Newsom hinted at shaking things up when he visited Colfax on January 8, his first full day in office. It was exactly two months after the Camp Fire.
Newsom told reporters, “I place no greater emphasis and energy and sense of urgency than on the issue of public safety broadly defined, and in particular, the issues of emergency preparedness.”
He continued: “The fact is, the climate’s changing, and we need to change with it. We still have organized so much of the bureaucracy of government around a world that no longer exists, around a fire season that no longer exists. We staff up, we staff down, and now we’re reacting to these old morays, and that fundamentally has to change.”
A governor who wants dramatic improvements in wildfire safety and prevention is presumably open to bringing in ideas from all sources, including the private sector. He might even take the lead in putting public and private parties together to create such a partnership.
Nothing would be lost by government officials and civilian experts doing a comprehensive joint review of how wildfire information is conveyed to the public.
Recent experience showed how much change is needed. With California’s wildfire season now a year-round affair, there’s no time to waste.
January 9, 2019 – 9 a.m. update
That WOOOSH you heard sweeping Northern California yesterday was the rush of fresh air driven by new Governor Gavin Newsom.
Monday was for inaugurating, but Tuesday – his first full day on the job – was for tone-setting, and that’s what he did for the absolute necessity that California must improve its protocols around preventing wildfires and responding to them.
We’ve been writing here about what Newsom can do in this regard since just days after the November 8 Camp Fire killed at least 86 residents of Paradise, CA and neighboring communities.
Our letter to the Sacramento Bee editor, displayed at right, opined that Newsom’s “legacy” could begin immediately if he were to take impactful measures to improve alerts and evacuation warnings to the public.
As widely reported (here's one especially good story) and repeated here at Wildfire Crisis below, Butte County’s attempts to send warnings to Paradise residents were total failures.
Mr. Newsom’s executive order directs CAL FIRE to issue a report within 45 days with its “recommendations of the most impactful administrative, regulatory, and policy changes or waivers the Governor can initiate that are necessary to prevent and mitigate wildfires to the greatest extent possible, with an emphasis on environmental sustainability and PROTECTION OF PUBLIC HEALTH (emphasis added).”
Those four words are why we can expect the report to address ways of improving life-saving evacuation alerts and warnings. But as our blog post notes today, warnings and alerts aren’t even specifically mentioned in the executive order.
A CAL FIRE report that similarly fails to specifically mention changes to warning protocols would be just another failure.
December 21, 2018 update -- noon
“PG&E broke laws in 12 massive wildfires, Cal Fire has found” is the biggest headline in today’s Sacramento Bee.
Identifying the causes of those fires is an important step in future fire prevention.
That’s well and good, but attention also needs to be relentless to ensure avoidance of the kind of evacuation failures that were experienced during the Camp Fire that destroyed the town of Paradise and nearby communities.
The Bay Area News Group’s recent investigation into the alert failures produced this headline in the Oroville Mercury-Register: “Camp Fire created a black hole of communication.”
The Sacramento Bee’s December 4th story also documented alert failures: “Many of the dead in Camp Fire were disabled, elderly. Could they have been saved?”
Butte County’s decision to not even issue a Wireless Emergency Alert (WEA) in the early stages of the November 8 fire needs close scrutiny. Butte County wasn’t alone in such a decision; Sonoma County authorities similarly didn’t issue a WEA during the Tubbs Fire in October 2017.
County authorities explained they wanted to avoid panic and road congestion, but as others have noted and we’ve recorded here at Wildfire Crisis, it’s impossible to “over-alert” in a dire emergency. Lessons learned in California’s wildfires must be put into practice to have any use.
Maybe the brilliance of tonight’s full moon can be a symbol of what’s needed in the weeks and months ahead – plenty of light shining on the decision-making system that left so many residents unaware of their peril as the Camp Fire swept down upon them.
December 18, 2018 update – 1 p.m.
Wildfire Crisis has been silent for two weeks about the failure of wildfire alerts to do any good in Paradise during the Camp Fire. Sometimes you just have to give events time to percolate.
The Bay Area News Group has just added the heat by publishing a fairly stunning investigation into those failures.
We’re quoting liberally from that report today, and as you read the excerpts or the entire story as printed in the Oroville Mercury Register, please keep in mind our main message at this website:
RADIO BROADCASTS ON ONE OR MORE LOCAL BUTTE COUNTY STATIONS COULD HAVE SUCCESSFULLY COMMUNICATED EVACUATION ORDERS THAT WERE NOT EVEN ATTEMPTED BY AUTHORITIES.
Sorry for SHOUTING, but we think it’s a no-brainer for radio to be a key communications channel during emergencies.
Radio is fast – delivered at the speed of light. It’s virtually ubiquitous; almost everyone has access to a radio receiver in home, car, or mobile phone. It’s entirely passive on the receiving end; a station broadcasts messages, and listeners hear them.
But back to the Bay Area News Group investigation. Here are several eye-grabbing findings and assertions from the report:
· In Paradise, only residents who had registered for CodeRED, the county’s alert system, had any chance of knowing what was happening during the Camp Fire. County logs from Nov. 8 show that messages reached 16,683 phones but failed to reach another 10,869 despite repeated attempts.
· Many residents didn’t sign up for the (CodeRED) system, officials didn’t trigger warnings for every neighborhood, and overloaded or damaged cellular networks often failed to deliver warnings to the intended recipient.
· A review of alerts issued by the county and Paradise police in the hours after the fire started on Nov. 8 shows that no evacuation orders were issued by the county to one six-square-mile swath of the city. Another four-mile stretch of town received merely a warning; the actual order to flee came 7.5 hours later, long after homes were reduced to ashes.
· Seventeen cell towers burned that first day, according to records obtained from the CPUC. During the first two weeks of the fire, a total of 66 cell phone towers were damaged or out of service, causing phones to go silent or calls to be dropped as surviving towers became overloaded by traffic.
SO WHY DO AUTHORITIES RESIST USING RADIO?
Shouting again, but this needs fixing, and fast. Shouting is authorized when authorities we entrust with our safety seemingly are incapable of understanding the obvious points we’re making here in Wildfire Crisis.
Radio is available, reliable, and ready to do the job that the newer technologies apparently can’t.
We ask you to spend a little time here at this website. Scroll down to the section headlined RADIO – HIDING IN PLAIN SIGHT. Continue down to PROPOSED – AN EMERGENCY ALERT SYSTEM USING RADIO.
Add your voice to the growing chorus demanding a new awareness among those whose responsibilities include ensuring the viability of emergency alerts and warnings to the public.
December 4, 2018 update – 10 a.m.
The page 1 story in today’s Sacramento Bee is a must read for anyone alarmed about the repeated failure to send effective wildfire alerts to the public.
This riveting account by several Bee reporters includes the description by the Butte County social services director of how her staff tried to alert the elderly and infirm of the approaching November 8 Camp Fire.
They did what might have been done a century ago, when bulky telephone boxes hung on kitchen walls and you turned a crank to ring up the operator.
They “began dialing names on a list of about 1,500 people on the hill who were enrolled in the county’s In-Home Supportive Services Program….”
The effort was overmatched by the fast-moving Camp Fire.
“You cannot plan for this sort of large-scale disaster,” the social services director said. “This is beyond what anyone could have imagined could have happened.”
But of course, we now know that we MUST plan for disasters like the Camp Fire, and we MUST know it can and will happen again.
IMPOSSIBLE TO ‘OVER-ALERT’
Social agencies undoubtedly realize that the elderly and infirm are unlikely to be plugged into alert systems that rely on digital devices. That’s why they used a telephone tree.
But the elderly are familiar with radio. They listened to radio throughout their lives during emergencies. Radio was their key link to critical information using the Emergency Broadcast System, which served the public well for decades.
In the digital age, society as a whole has embraced smart phones and turned away from radio – with tragic consequences.
It’s been widely reported that Butte County authorities did not send a broad Emergency Weather Alert – similar to Amber alerts – to smart phones on the morning of the fire. Some argue that doing so might have sparked panic.
But elsewhere in the story, a Governor’s Office of Emergency Services official pushes back against that notion and told the Bee he believes “the systems should be used whenever wildfires threaten people. Everything I’ve ever seen or read, you cannot over-alert.”
Exactly right. We’ve seen tragic results when over-cautious authorities didn’t send a broad alert to the public – scores of fatalities in wildfires across the state.
“Narrow-casting” isn’t working, so government now needs to seriously examine its existing emergency notification protocols and include radio broadcasting in its future plans.
Let's finally implement lessons that already have been learned.
‘60 MINUTES’ EATS, SHOOTS, AND LEAVES
WITHOUT COVERING WARNING FAILURE
December 3, 2018 update -- 11 a.m.
CBS’s celebrated news magazine show “60 Minutes” exposed the nation to the Camp Fire tragedy last evening but didn’t ask the one question that burns for many survivors:
“Why didn’t Butte County issue an effective wildfire evacuation warning or alert?”
Neither of those words shows up in the show’s transcript. Nobody asked Butte County authorities – at least not for broadcast – why the lessons of 2017’s Wine Country fires weren’t applied in the early hours of November 8.
It’s not as if other news media haven’t been asking those questions. CBS producers surely would have known about the failures if they had done their homework. Here are some headlines on the warning failure available to anyone with a search engine:
Camp fire evacuation warnings failed to reach more than a third of residents meant to receive calls –- Los Angeles times, 11/30/18
Camp Fire: Paradise residents say they received no mass cellphone alerts to evacuate, or to warn of fires -- San Jose Mercury News, 11/13/18
County officials failed to use cell phone alerts to warn residents about Camp Fire -- San Francisco Chronicle, 11/17/18
Deadly Camp Fire Highlights Flaws in California’s Emergency Warnings –- Government Technology, 11/28/18
Much blame to go around in deadly Camp fire – starting with failed warning systems –- San Diego Union-Tribune, 11/19/18
SHOWING TOO MUCH RESPECT
This Wildfire Crisis website takes special note in the Union-Tribune editorial of “the failure of all agencies with public safety responsibilities to issue emergency warnings on radio and TV stations.”
The failure to push evacuation warnings in radio broadcasts is what this site and others have been calling out — not only recently for the Camp Fire but in July’s Carr Fire in Redding and last year’s Tubbs Fire in Sonoma County. Our Citizens Helping Officials Respond to Emergencies (CHORE) Blog goes into more depth on those warning failures, as well as earlier ones.
With so much media coverage of the failures, why did 60 Minutes choose to ignore them?
The answer may be found in the program’s online Overtime segment that provides background and details on stories that aren’t included in their on-air segments.
The Overtime report begins: “When (correspondent Bill) Whitaker arrived in California with producer Marc Leiberman and associate producer Ali Rawaf, the team knew they had to earn the trust of the people in Paradise. They needed to assure the sheriff that they would be respectful of all that was lost.”
To its credit, the 60 Minutes segment on the fire was respectful of the victims and their families. But sensitivity isn’t what’s called for now in the wake of California’s worst-ever fire tragedy that killed at least 88 residents.
At some point, 60 Minutes might well return to California to probe the issues highlighted by the headlines above.
We’ve written that authorities have a blind spot about the nearly fail-safe radio communications channel, which is all but ignored in emergency preparedness websites’ advice to citizens on how to react once a wildfire has erupted.
Our November 29th post (below) pointed out the hard-to-fathom failure of a State website to even mention wildfire preparedness on a page that specifically alerts residents about tornado, tsunami, and earthquake dangers.
I had intended to close today’s post by comparing last night’s 60 Minutes story to the program’s mission statement. You’d think it would be easy to find one, but that doesn’t seem to be the case. Maybe the mission statement is lost among the plaudits.
Here’s a suggestion for any news organization that reports on California’s wildfires:
“Mission: To discover why wildfire warnings were not issued soon enough to effectively alert citizens of their peril, and to report on remedies required to ensure those failures will not be repeated.”
And if that’s a reasonable media mission, we'd ask our media friends to please spare the “sensitivity.” Lives are at stake.
EMERGENCY ALERTS WON’T SUCCEED
IF PERSONAL INITIATIVE IS MISSING
November 29, 2018 update -- 4 p.m.
Picking up where we left off yesterday, this website believes AM and FM radio stations are overlooked as important links in sending wildfire alerts to the public. They’re overlooked by the very personnel who are charged with keeping the public safe.
It’s not hard to find evidence to support that conclusion. Search the Internet for county and agency emergency preparedness websites. If they simply advise citizens to keep a battery-powered radio handy, as so many of them do, that’s not good enough.
The public needs to know exactly where to turn for information in a wildfire. If emergency planners have built relationships with radio stations between emergencies, they can direct the public to those specific broadcasters, whose speed-of-light signals outrun any wildfire.
That’s what the Napa County emergency preparedness planners have done. Their emergency page advises: “Listen to KVON radio (1440 a.m.) for emergency updates.”
According to the Napa County Grand Jury, KVON “saved the day” during the big Wine Country wildfire in October 2017, and that only could have happened because the county’s planners had thought ahead on how to effectively communicate with the public in a crisis.
INITIATIVE, INITIATIVE, INITIATIVE
In the era of repeated wildfire tragedies, if an authoritative website doesn’t even highlight wildfires in its preparedness pages, something is seriously missing. Cal OES has one such page.
It advises readers to “visit the links below to learn more about” 11 major emergency-related topics, including tsunami preparedness, earthquake preparedness, and volcano preparedness.
Incredibly, wildfire preparedness isn’t among those topics -- not even after at least 88 people died in the November 8 fire that destroyed Paradise, CA.
Three weeks later, visitors to that page still aren’t advised on how to stay safe in a wildfire.
Granted, OES has had a lot on its plate since the Camp Fire, but let's hope someone soon takes personal initiative to revise that page and include wildfire preparedness as a worthy topic.
Personnel in Napa County have demonstrated that initiative by building relationships with KVON’s management to ensure a communication link can be activated quickly and efficiently.
Personal initiative and extra thought are required to keep the public safe in what Governor Brown calls the “new abnormal” – a warming and drying climate that makes extreme wildfires nearly inevitable, no matter how much the forest floor is raked.
This is a new paradigm for everyone involved with wildfire communications. It's time to recognize that old-school radio broadcasts may actually be as good or better than mobile phone-based systems in issuing effective alerts and saving lives.
THE PATH TO IMPROVED WILDFIRE ALERTS
ALREADY HAS SOME STEPPING STONES IN PLACE
November 28, 2018 update – 2 p.m.
Creating a wildfire warning system that reliably protects California’s population won’t be a simple undertaking, but like the proverbial thousand-mile journey, it begins with a single step.
Fortunately, we’ve moved beyond that first step, and multiple agencies are working to put the lessons learned in the Tubbs, Carr, and Camp fires to work in improving current alert procedures.
One of those agencies is the Napa County Grand Jury, which examined the official response to the Wine Country fires that swept into that county in October 2017. The Grand Jury produced a report with observations and recommendations, and it’s worth a quick read.
This Wildfire Crisis site believes sending alerts to the public over broadcast stations is superior than relying on “push alerts” using Code Red, Nixle, and other opt-in systems that proved unreliable during the firestorms of the past 13 months.
Even the Wireless Emergency Alert (WEA) system is vulnerable, as the report notes: “The fact that Nixle alerts are reliant on cell towers and aerial transmission lines means that, as with WEAs, the alerts will only be received if the cell technology is working.”
RELAXING DIGITAL’S GRIP
Today’s post focuses on some of the key Findings and Recommendations from the Grand Jury report.
FINDING: Reliance on the Nixle cellular communications platform proved to be insufficient in warning Napa County residents in a timely and accurate way. A small percentage of residents, and very few visitors, were registered, and for those in the danger areas, it became moot as the cell infrastructure quickly became inoperable.”
We call it the love affair with all things digital – the total buy-in on the idea that if it’s high-tech and new, it’s gotta be good. And that isn’t necessarily so.
Consider this from the report:
FINDING: Since power, Internet and cell towers were lost in many areas of Napa county, local radio station KVON provided a valuable platform for fire updates, evacuation locations, and critical information from public officials.
Good old reliable analog radio proved invaluable during the fire, according to the report:
“When the power went out , and the public could no longer receive information from TV, the Internet or Nixle, it was old technology that saved the day. Residents got in their cars or dug out their battery-powered radios to tune in to KVON.”
It’s therefore not surprising that the Grand Jury’s recommendations include specific use of broadcast radio in future emergencies:
RECOMMENDATION: Napa County should negotiate an agreement, in conjunction with the County’s municipalities, to formally incorporate plans to utilize local radio station KVON into existing and future Disaster and Hazard mitigation plans in the County by June 30, 2019.
UP NEXT: Wildfire Crisis will continue this theme in tomorrow’s post with thoughts on how the personnel who operate the public information system might well use radio during an emerging wildfire threat.
CAMP FIRE WAS 'WATERSHED MOMENT'
THAT MUST RESULT IN IMPROVED ALERTS
November 27, 2018 update – 5 p.m.
Days of reflection since the November 8 Camp Fire in Butte County have given us a chance to catch up on media reports that were initially missed.
A New York Times story on November 21 deserves special attention: https://www.nytimes.com/2018/11/21/us/paradise-fires-emergency-alerts.html
The story is headlined “A Frantic Call, a Neighbor’s Knock, but Few Official Alerts as Wildfire Closed in.” The subhead summarizes the theme this Wildfire Crisis website has been pursuing: “Only a fraction of residents received emergency alerts or evacuation orders from local authorities.”
The writer called the Camp Fire a “Watershed Moment” that almost certainly will drive reforms in how wildfire alerts are created and disseminated to the populace during a fire emergency. Residents deserve a seat at the table.
“They totally dropped the ball on this,” one survivor said of the authorities. “Look, all these people dead, all these people missing. It’s like they decided to forget about us. Like we weren’t worth saving.”
Authorities surely dispute that conclusion, but it’s hard for them to defend the execution of an alert that went so wrong.
The Code Red system requires residents to sign up for alerts delivered by the program, but only about 30 percent of the Paradise community had done so, according to media reports.
The Times story quotes the Butte County Sheriff as agreeing with residents that they should have had a better notice. “We couldn’t have given enough notice given the circumstances,” he said, a perspective that needs further examination.
NOTHING OUTRUNS RADIO
Little if any evidence exists of a concerted effort by authorities to proactively and aggressively reach out to broadcasters in the early hours of the Camp Fire emergency – early enough to push messages broadly to everyone, as radio likes to say, “within the sound of my voice.”
It’s been a recurring failure during wildfire emergencies. In October 2017, the Tubbs Fire devastated communities in Sonoma County, and the similarities with the Camp Fire are striking, as noted in yesterday’s post here at Wildfire Crisis. The Nixle program used by Sonoma County authorities failed to reach most residents.
Dr. Thomas Cova of the University of Utah is quoted in the Times story on the Nixle alert failure. “It’s really disappointing,” Cova said. “You’d think with what happened in Sonoma County, that other counties in California and elsewhere would review their systems and go door-to-door to get everyone subscribed, or whatever it takes.”
That didn’t happen. Reforms are needed that ensure evacuation and other alerts will actually reach residents soon enough to save lives. Radio and television stations represent an obvious way to reach large segments of the community quickly – at the speed of light, as we like to note.
The Camp Fire should put an end to officials’ concern of sending alerts too broadly. It’s better to warn too many residents than too few.
ARE EMERGENCY ALERTS MIRED IN PROCEDURE, POLICY?
‘WE’RE ONE COG IN THE LARGE CALIFORNIA WHEEL’
November 26, 2018 update – 4:00 p.m.
You have be awake in the dead of night to listen to KQED’s broadcast of Reveal, a radio program co-produced by the Center on Investigative Reporting and media company PRX.
The episode that aired shortly after 1 a.m. Sunday, November 25 was titled “Burning Hotter and Faster” and examined the Camp Fire in Butte County that broke out on November 8, killing at least 88 residents of Paradise, CA and nearby communities. According to CalFire’s November 25 Incident Update, the fire destroyed exactly 14,500 structures and damaged 564 others.
It’s worth an hour of your time to click on this link https://bit.ly/2BzGi8w and listen as Reveal plays recordings of first responders confronting the most destructive and deadly wildfire in California history.
Also featured was Sonoma County’s Tubbs fire in October 2017 that, until the Camp Fire, was California’s most destructive fire.
FROM THE SHOW’S TRANSCRIPT
The Reveal program finds striking similarities between the Tubbs and Camp fires. KQED reporter Sukey Lewis reports in the program that alerts were slow to be sent to communities during both fires:
“…so many issues are the same. Like, as a reporter, for me in many ways it feels like I'm having to tell the same story over again. From the evacuation alerts that are not getting out, to many of the people who are the victims of this fire who are elderly and disabled. And it's just heartbreaking.”
Lewis reports that authorities tracking the Camp Fire did not use the Wireless Emergency Alert system that, like Amber Alerts, can “hijack” mobile phones and make a loud noise.
This WildfireCrisis website is focused on improving wildfire alerts using the well-developed infrastructure of civilian radio stations that’s been growing for the past century.
The Emergency Broadcast System (EBS) was built around designated emergency broadcasters in each community –- stations that often used back-up generators to remain on the air during power outages.
But nowhere in the Reveal program is there any mention that radio station broadcasts were used to alert the public. As we’ve noted repeatedly, the emergence of mobile telephone technology seems to have swept away all memory of the EBS among emergency response planners.
The Reveal show quoted a CalFire battalion chief, and that quote offers insight into why emergency communications were slow or not sent at all in the Tubbs and Camp fires and in Redding’s Carr Fire last summer:
“Our world that we operate in is very procedurally driven, policy and procedurally driven. We’re one cog in the large California cog wheel.”
Our Citizens Helping Officials Respond to Emergencies (CHORE -- http://YourChore.blogspot.com ) blog reached the same conclusion in our November 20 post:
“The highly-structured incident command system unfortunately may be one reason critical information is slow to reach the public in an emergency –- as counter-intuitive as that may seem. The IC system values coordination among all the parties over fast entrepreneurial initiative by those charged with disseminating information to the public. That’s an opinion based on up-close observation when the writer had PIO responsibilities during the 2017 Oroville Spillways emergency.”
Something good has to emerge from these tragic fires. Revised alert protocols that value spontaneity and initiative using radio broadcasts to inform the public would be a good place to start.
Thanksgiving Day, November 22, 2018 update – 9:00 a.m.
Americans can be thankful today for the Constitution’s mandate of press freedom, which is under daily assault. We rely on a free press to hold government accountable and to ensure those entrusted with our well-being are up to the task.
Today’s Sacramento Bee carries an editorial originally published five days ago in the Chico Enterprise-Record titled “Camp Fire was the tragedy Paradise had long feared."
It’s a good recounting of the preparations Paradise, CA leaders took to improve evacuation routes. The wildfire danger was obvious for years.
Yet nowhere in that 660-word editorial do you find the words that most interest this Wildfire Crisis website -- “alert” and “warning.”
Paradise fire survivors complained they received no fire or evacuation warning of any kind – by the opt-in cell phone program, by community siren (there is none), or by broadcast media.
The San Francisco Chronicle reported on that failure on November 20 as noted in this website’s post that day: “The high death toll of the Camp Fire is in large part due to people failing to learn of the danger and quickly evacuate.”
The Chronicle and other media have been reporting on wildfire alert failures for the past year. It’s a common thread that links the Camp Fire and July’s Carr Fire in Redding and the Tubbs Fire in 2017 that killed two dozen people and destroyed thousands of homes in Sonoma County.
We need and expect that kind of scrutiny by our news media. Unfortunately, editorials so far have largely avoided focusing on the alert failures that characterize each of the major wildfires in the past year.
As the Camp Fire so tragically proved, wildfires can burn so fast and furiously that emergency responders have little time to alert the public. But no fire can outrun radio broadcasts or the blare of a siren network.
Paradise had no sirens, and there’s little if any evidence of officials reaching out to the broadcast media early enough for an warning to be effective.
The media can continue their valuable public service by using future editorials as platforms to examine the obvious alert failures and call for remedies.
November 20, 2018 update – 10:30 a.m.
Today’s San Francisco Chronicle carries a report on the emergency alert system failure during the November 8 Paradise, CA Camp Fire:
“Like Sonoma County officials last year, authorities in Butte County are coming under attack for not issuing a wide-spread emergency message to cell phones, known as a Wireless Emergency Alert, or WEA, when the fire broke out.
“The high death toll of the Camp Fire is in large part due to people failing to learn of the danger and quickly evacuate. Several burned in their cars.”
Without question, current warning systems are not good enough. That’s a critical lesson learned in the Camp Fire, July’s Carr Fire in Redding, and last year’s Tubbs Fire in Sonoma.
More needs to happen when officials attempt to warn a population in peril, and it may require nothing less than addressing the incident command structure itself.
That’s the conclusion outlined at our sister website CHORE -- http://YourChore.blogspot.com. Please read it and provide feedback using the form at the bottom of this Wildfire Crisis site.
The new entrepreneurial public information concept also is described in the last section of this website below -- Proposed: An Improved Emergency Alert System.
November 18, 2018 update – 3:30 p.m.
This website followed up today on the San Francisco Chronicle’s November 17 story on Butte County’s decision to not issue a Wireless Emergency Alert (WEA) as the deadly Camp Fire spread into Paradise, CA. WEAs are amber alert-like “push” messages that go out over cell phone networks.
Failed warnings to residents are the common denominator for the Tubbs, Carr, and Camp fires. Newspaper reporting has covered similar complaints from survivors of the three fires that no warnings reached them before flames swept into their communities.
CHORE, our crisis communications blog, commented on residents’ complaints after Sonoma County’s Tubbs Fire 13 months ago that they had received no official warnings about that fire (see https://bit.ly/2CRhqeE)
Yesterday’s Chronicle story quoted Thomas Cova, director of the University of Utah Center for Natural & Technological Hazards, that WEA activation would have given people “a fighting chance to ready themselves to go if they hadn’t left already.”
WildfireCrisis supports a return to broadcast radio as a critical emergency notification channel. Radio stations have been pushed aside in the new digital information age by cell phones and other digital products – with tragic results.
We emailed Tom Cova yesterday to see if he agrees with that view, and he responded affirmatively this morning. Doctor Cova allowed us to quote his email:
“Radio has been a warning staple (e.g. emergency broadcasting system) but has lost favor with emergency managers as fewer homes have the radio on than they used to. However, it's still an effective way to reach people in traffic, which is when most Americans still listen to it. So, if you had a land-line based subscription system like CodeRed, that would definitely not reach tourists, and radio would be a great way to reach some of them.
“That said, I think you're absolutely right. I live in Salt Lake City and tend to think in terms of urban cell-phone ownership, but when my parents were retired in rural Oregon, they used to wake up and turn on local radio every morning and neither ever owned a cell-phone. So given the time of the Camp Fire and the demographics of Paradise, a radio alert would have likely made a very effective way to instantly get many talking and moving.
“One of the general findings in warning-and-response research over the years is ‘the more channels the better’ where channels means radio, TV, text, siren, PA, etc. So, a comprehensive alert plan should include all of them because while one household may be watching TV another may have the radio on and so on.
“It's a great reminder that especially rural alert/warning plans need to think more about traditional warning channels.”
Doctor Cova is clear in his support of an all-channels approach that includes radio, which as we’ve noted here previously has all but been abandoned by officials in charge of emergency alert protocols.
AM radio was the foundation of the Emergency Broadcast System that was promoted for decades – often enough for citizens to know immediately to tune to a designated radio station in their area when sirens blared a warning.
Governor-Elect Gavin Newsom can kick-start his administration by announcing an intention to revamp California’s emergency notification protocols to include what worked so well for generations – low-tech radio broadcasts that are virtually fail-safe in their ability to reach the masses instantaneously.
As for criticisms that too many people can needlessly be notified in mass notifications, radio has the advantage of using the human voice to modify the warning to be site-specific in a broadcast alert. It’s time to start focusing on the positives of widespread alerts rather than the negatives.
Experts like Tom Cova agree.
November 17, 2018 update -- 10 a.m.
Eight more Camp Fire fatalities were confirmed last night, and an astounding 1,011 were said to be on the "missing" list. The immensity of the tragedy builds each day.
As with yesterday's post here, we're summarizing our concerns by posting our @DougNorCal tweets today:
Good for #ParadiseStrong and #CampFire recovery. http://WildfireCrisis.com seeks to build critical mass demanding #Wildfire alert reforms. @GavinNewsom legacy could begin now by making reform highest priority. Not too late for @JerryBrownGov and #ButteCounty
@sfchronicle story by @Cat_Ho: “But a little more than a week since the #CampFire ignited to become the deadliest and most destrictive wildfire in Ca history, the response by #ButteCounty officials has raised questions about how far the state has come in the past year...
…and whether local governments are doing everything they can to warn people of the devastating blazes before they’re burning at their doors.” Exactly right. #Tubbs #Carr and #CarrFire all had failed alerts. What has changed? Please keep reading at WildfireCrisis.com
November 16, 2018 update – 10 a.m.
Dread may be the dominant emotion as Butte County officials open each news media briefing. Another seven deaths were confirmed last evening, bringing the total so far to 63, but virtually no one thinks that number won’t grow.
Today’s contribution here at Wildfire Crisis is a compilation of the several messages I posted on Twitter this morning. Their focus once again is the emergency alert system that so obviously failed the good people of Paradise, CA.
More reporting/evidence of failed #ButteCounty #CampFire alert; death toll now 63, hundreds missing. My focus is AM radio, a proven mass medium, unlike failed opt-in, reverse 911 calls. So see next tweets for questions re radio at the next media briefing. http://WildfireCrisis.com
Qs for officials at briefing: “What did you do to include radio broadcasts in your fire alerts on 11/8? Did you contact radio stations, and if so, when? If not, what was the problem? Do you acknowledge that radio is the fastest channel over which to push alerts?" (more to come)
November 15, 2018 Update – 8:00 a.m.
Somber, sorrowful, reserved, and respectful – descriptions of the media’s coverage of the Camp Fire that obliterated the town of Paradise, CA.
Newspaper stories on the fire are full of sorrow, and you hear it in the voices of broadcast reporters. The death toll reached 56 last night, with dozens of residents still missing. Sorrow and respect come naturally.
Yet the coverage is beginning to highlight the tough realities that always accompany human tragedies. How did the fire start? Is someone or something to blame? Were warnings adequate?
This website has focused on the last question since its creation following the Carr Fire that killed several Redding residents last summer. Our sister website – Citizens Helping Officials Respond to Emergencies (CHORE) – has tracked apparent lapses in official emergency notifications since 2006 at http://YourChore.blogspot.com
Journalists find no joy, nor do we, in reporting about emergency warning response failure, yet that was the inescapable conclusion after the Sonoma County fires a year ago, the Carr Fire in July and August, and the Camp Fire one week ago today.
The headline at the top of this post summarizes the reporting of the San Jose Mercury News in a story published online at 7 p.m. on November 13 -- https://bayareane.ws/2Ps8zGu
“Angry residents say they received no official warning to flee and instead learned late of the danger when they smelled smoke or saw flames, or from family or neighbors — then faced gridlocked traffic, surrounded by flames, along the town’s few exit routes.
“The Butte County Sheriff’s Department asserts that it issued alerts through its CodeRed phone notification system but concedes that the effort fell short.
“I wish we had opportunity to get more alerts out, more warning out,” said Sheriff Kory Honea in a community meeting on Monday night. “We try to use any many systems as we can… But in the heat of this, it was moving so fast, it was difficult to get that information out.”
An NBC story also published on November 13 reported on residents’ anger over the apparent failure of the warning system -- https://nbcnews.to/2DkXvDH
“Some of those who escaped from the massive Camp Fire last week questioned why Butte County leaders did not do more to warn residents of Paradise and neighboring mountain communities as a fire whipped with fearsome speed through the mountainous region north of Sacramento….
“A resident of Magalia, about 8 miles west of the fire’s starting point, confronted Butte County Sheriff Kory L. Honea and other officials Monday about why he and his neighbors could not find any information about the dangerous blaze, a full three hours after fire crews first responded to the ignition point, near Highway 70 in Plumas National Forest….
“'We use the emergency broadcast system for a tornado warning. But this is a deadly fire,' said the man, who was not identified by county officials whom he addressed at the meeting in Oroville. 'I don’t remember any alert coming over my radio. ... People in the community are freaking out, you need to get some information up here.'”
As of this morning, critical coverage of the warning system’s apparent failure has yet to emerge in stories posted by some of the newspapers that have devoted considerable resources to reporting on the fire and its aftermath. Perhaps their editors feel somber and respectful set the appropriate tone in the week since the fire killed nearly five dozen residents, with many more still missing.
But the issue is real. The issue is here and now. Lessons must be learned – and quickly. The complaint about the lack of radio alerts is precisely the theme of this Wildfire Crisis website, as seen in earlier posts from early August.
Much more remains to be reported about the inadequacy of Butte County’s emergency alerts for the Camp Fire. Their inadequacy is unquestionable.
The challenge is to learn from their inadequacies and adjust to reality -- Governor Brown’s “new abnormal” characterized by recurring massive wildfires in a warming climate and ongoing drought.
New alert protocols must be implemented immediately, and we can think of no better place to start than prioritizing AM radio as a necessary channel for warnings sent to the population at the speed of light.
Radio and television station transmission towers are part of America’s landscape. You see them throughout California if you pay attention, but they’ve become so commonplace that you barely give them a thought — like radio itself.
Virtually all California households have the capability to listen to radio. If citizens don’t own an old-school set like the one in the photo above, they probably have an app on a smart phone, and radio is standard equipment in cars and trucks. In other words, the ability to hear AM radio broadcasts or “app casts” is shared by nearly all Californians.
That being the case, why don’t emergency communicators use this ubiquitous channel to issue wildfire alerts to warn communities of their imminent danger from onrushing wildfires?
The evidence is clear they don’t. Search the website of the California Office of Emergency Services and you’ll see this channel is almost entirely ignored. The only advice to families that’s readily accessible on the OES, county, and community emergency websites so far surveyed is to listen to radio and TV for updates and to be sure to pack a battery-powered portable radio in the family’s emergency evacuation kit or bag.
This Wildfire Crisis website believes emergency communications planners and thinkers have fallen in love with social media, “push alerts” and other modern, tech-reliant communication modes.
We think there’s a better way. Keep reading below.
Citizens have a role in ensuring their own safety. Gov. Jerry Brown said as much on August 4, 2018 in Redding after his tour of the Carr fire’s destruction: “Neighbors have a role, because we’re not all just dependent on government," Brown said. "We’re free American citizens and we take action. And that’s what people do particularly in this part of California and that’s all to the good.”
If officials can’t do it all, citizens can step up and identify the communications glitches and propose solutions. That’s why I started the Citizens Helping Officials Respond ot Emergencies (CHORE) blog after a series of crisis communications missteps in 2006. Click below to visit CHORE to get in the spirit of creating citizen initiatives — like this Wildfire Crisis website.
The current crisis exists not only where wildfires are sweeping through the landscapes but also in the plans to alert families that they’re in danger. Helping with the solutions is Your CHORE if you choose to accept it.
Develop plans that spefically designate AM radio broadcast stations as critical communications links during wildfires.
Each channel — social media, push alerts, and every new thing that comes along — has a place. Use them, but don’t fall in love with them. Their reach is neither as wide nor as readily accessible as old-school broadcast media.
You probably have to be at least 30 years old to recall the Emergency Broadcast System (EBS), which was phased out in the 1990s. The national system designated at least one emergency broadcast station in each major community. Those stations had emergency electricity generators to stay on the air during power outages.
Citizens need to know where to turn during emergencies to find information that will keep them alive. The EBS network worked because of relentless publicity of and by the designated emergency broadcast stations during the quiet times between emergencies. Officials would routinely remind the public about the station’s link to critical information. The goal was to eliminate any doubt in the populace of where they could find that information.
Once a crisis is close at hand, as it was in Redding during the Carr Fire and Paradise's Camp Fire, the system of emergency alerts would be activated, but unlike those incidents, AM radio would be an official part of the mix. Public information officers and other official spokespersons (battalion chiefs, incident commanders, etc.) would include the designated station in their outreach. A PIO would be sited at the radio station to be a conduit for evacuation orders from the field straight to the public over the radio. If not actually positioned at the station, PIOs and others would push this critical information to the public over the designated station. As noted at the CHORE website, there’s not a station owner or general manager alive who’d refuse the opportunity of being THE go-to station for news and information critical to the community.
This isn’t rocket science. Clear thinking absent a mindset that “new is better” could implement the above plan or a better one. Unfortunately, a mindset has evolved among too many planners in the digital era that Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and the other social media are superior to older communications channels, AM radio among them. People are dying in California wildfires because, in the Redding family’s case, they only had flip phones incapable of receiving evacuation alerts. But the family probably had access to a radio set in the home or car. With prior publicity, the plan as outlined above might have saved them from their tragedy.
I’m Doug Carlson, a former PIO at the California Department of Water Resources, a former journalist (including at all-news radio stations), and — more pertinent to the issue of emergency communications improvement — a former corporate communications manager who used radio to communicate in emergencies. Experience drives me to push AM radio as the missing potentially life-saving link in the current wildfire communications protocol. But I’m just one person. Send me a message about what YOU think.