SANTA ROSA (CBS SF) — The Sonoma County Board of Supervisors Tuesday will discuss a report by the Governor’s Office of Emergency Services on how the county’s alert and warning system functioned during the October fires that destroyed 5,300 homes and killed 24 people.

The Office of Emergency Services assessment team found that Sonoma County began issuing emergency alerts and notifications to the public as early at 10:51 p.m. Oct. 8 and continued the alerts as the fires progressed.

The specific procedures for using those alerts and warning capabilities, however, were uncoordinated and included gaps, overlays and
redundancies regarding capabilities in various county departments, the assessment team said.

During the early hours of the fires, the county lacked reliable, timely, and coordinated situational awareness regarding the scale, size and scope of the fires’ growth, character and movement, and the procedures and policies the county followed during flood events were misunderstood or not directly applicable to the fast moving complex fire situation, according to the OES team.

The report finds that County Emergency Services Manager Christopher Helgren decided before the fires not to use wireless alert
technology to warn the public of a disaster.

Those wireless systems included the federal Wireless Emergency Alert system that sends texts to all cellphones in a specific area, and the Emergency Alert System that uses radio, wireless cable systems and cable television systems.

The warnings were sent instead by Sonoma County Alert and Nixle, both of which require residents to sign up for phone and email warnings.

The assessment team made 11 recommendations to Sonoma County officials, including using the Wireless Emergency System for all critical public alerts and warnings because it reaches all wireless telephones in the affected disaster area not only those that are registered.

The WEA also reaches people who are deaf, hearing impaired, tourists and other visitors. WEA’s wireless alerts also are less exposed to
network congestion, the OES assessment team said.

Cal OES Director Mark S. Ghilarducci said the report was prepared in good faith, and the team’s focus was to better understand the county’s automated warning systems.

“This assessment should not be considered an investigation that evaluates specific decisions made with regard to emergency notifications during the wildfires,” Ghilarducci said in his letter to County Administrator Sheryl Bratton who requested the OES report.

“The report also should not be construed as providing conclusive findings regarding the actions of any individuals interviewed or involved in the process of emergency response and management during the wildfires,” Ghilarducci said.

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