Skip to main content

Improved Public Information System Needed To Save Lives during California Wildfires in the New Abnormal



More lives were lost in the November 2018 Camp Fire that destroyed Paradise, CA than in any other fire in the state's history. As of November 20, the count had reached 79, with hundreds of residents still missing.

Survivors have complained they received no warning as flames raced into the community of 27,000 and destroyed nearly every structure. 

As reported widely, officials did not activate a warning system that was designed to issue evacuation alerts. Today’s San Francisco Chronicle reports:

“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.”

Officials said the fire was so hot and fast-moving that “devastation is inevitable, especially as the climate continues to change.” Gov. Jerry Brown calls it the “new abnormal” in a warming and drying climate.

If that’s true, then California can anticipate many more fast-moving fires that will threaten to take untold numbers of lives in the years and decades ahead.

PUBLIC INFORMATION REFORM

No fire can outrun a radio broadcast, yet old-school radio has been overtaken in the new digital age by an over-reliance on cell phone technology that is highly vulnerable and unreliable in wildfires.

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.

CHORE’s sister website Wildfire Crisis lays out the basics for a broadcast-focused fast-acting information dissemination system that is much more entrepreneurial than the widely used incident command structure.

Individual public information officers would be dispatched to (principally AM radio) stations and would be the on-air link between incident command teams and the public. The stations would be publicized in the calm time between emergencies as the public's sources of critical crisis information.

That’s not happening today, yet each fire brings more survivor accounts that they didn't receive a cell phone alert or any other warning. Reform clearly must happen in the “new abnormal.” 

What remains to be seen is whether those charged with command of the current system are flexible enough to admit the failures and adapt to new ways of alerting the public -- ways that actually save lives.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

This is Your CHORE if You Choose to Accept It

CHORE stands for the title of this new blog: Citizens Helping Officials Respond to Emergencies.

Specifically, the focus is helping officials in Hawaii respond to emergencies such as the one we just had -- the two earthquakes (6.7 and 6.0 on the scale) that struck the islands on Sunday, October 15, 2006.

"Help" is the operable concept. I get the feeling -- based on news coverage of officialdom's emergency response -- that some good old-fashioned idea mongering and suggestions might help improve communications to our population during and after emergencies.

You be the judge after reading this report in The Honolulu Advertiser today, headlined: "Debate begins on delay of news"

My reaction to that story is that our Civil Defense officials, elected government leaders and broadcast media need to communicate more, not less. Comments by officials in this story suggest a mindset to not tell the population too much for fear the messages might be misunderstood.

My thoughts …

Perry and Price Are Right: They Really COULD Do Their Brand of Emergency Broadcasting from Albania

Hawaii News Now reports "live" from the Big Island; 
1500 AM on Oahu delivered the goods on Iselle with the HNN simulcast.
Honolulu’s designated emergency broadcaster, KSSK, did what it said it would do – move its market-leading broadcast personalities to Las Vegas the day before Hurricane Iselle was expected to hit the islands. You can read about that decision here.
In so many respects, KSSK’s emergency broadcast role in August 2014 mirrors how the station performed after the October 2006 Big Island earthquakes (here, and here), how it performed after the December 2008 island-wide power outage and on other occasions, most of which are chronicled at CHORE (such as here, here,here and here).
In a nutshell, there’s nothing in KSSK’s approach to emergency broadcasting to suggest it knows how to respect the emergency. And here’s the proof:
KSSK’s 7:30 a.m. Newscast on August 8, 2014 – about five hours after Hurricane Iselle arrived on the Big Island.
Story Lineup * Iraq ISIS attacks s…

KSSK: Power Outages Reportedly Weren’t Widespread Enough To Mention in the News

We now have additional information about KSSK’s lack of power outage coverage early this morning. CHORE questioned the station's performance today for not mentioning any power outages in its early newscasts, even though outages had been common during the thunderstorms and, according to a Hawaiian Electric recording at its Trouble number (548-7961), they were still happening.

HECO’s message at 4:20 a.m. mentioned 18 communities where outages had been reported. (The list had grown to 26 communities by early this afternoon.) We had no reason to doubt the list’s accuracy; on the contrary, we had reason enough to believe outages were indeed happening in those 18 communities -- from Niu Valley to Mililani Mauka. The reason we called HECO in the first place was that power was out at our home and our entire community of dozens (hundreds?) of other homes.

Except for this: Chuck Cotton, vice president/general manager of Clear Channel Radio Hawaii, told CHORE the following in an email:

“A H…