Southern California agencies are working to improve evacuation warnings and other emergency notifications – and widening their reach – in the aftermath of unprecedented winter wildfires and mudslides that devastated huge swaths of the Golden State.
Last December, as the destructive Creek fire roared toward their homes “like a freight train” in the dead of night, some foothill and San Fernando Valley residents say they were alarmed that they received no notification of the danger.
Authorities believe their initial method of warning residents of that blaze during those dangerous early hours – scores of first responders who raced from door to door and blared sirens and warnings over mobile PA systems – proved effective. Considering the swift pace and sweeping scope of the erratic, wind-driven fire that scorched 15,600 acres and destroyed 60 homes, the fact that no one died is “pretty remarkable,” Los Angeles Fire Department Battalion Chief Nicholas Ferrari said.
Concerns over notifications were also reported following the deadly Northern California fires in October and the Thomas fire in December in Ventura and Santa Barbara counties, where subsequent mudslides killed at least 21 more people.
“The importance of mass-notification tools has really been highlighted with the recent (California) fires and what happened in Hawaii,” said Helen Chavez, assistant director of the L.A. County Office of Emergency Management, referencing a notification of a missile threat that turned out to be a false alarm in the Aloha State.
Los Angeles city emergency management officials are ramping up their efforts to recruit subscribers to NotifyLA, the city’s mass notification system, which sends voice messages, text messages and email messages to affected residents and businesses during emergencies.
As of this month, more than 189,000 contacts were registered, up from 106,000 on Dec. 1 before the Creek and Skirball fires ravaged parts of the city. While the increase is dramatic, it’s still only a fraction of the city’s roughly 4 million residents.
“We’re putting videos together; we’re trying to even go to homeowners associations, to the neighborhood councils to convince people to (sign up),” Aram Sahakian, general manager of the city of L.A.’s Emergency Management Department, said.
“(When) there’s a major emergency and unfortunately people die, then you see the number of subscribers go up.”
In Los Angeles County, emergency management officials are launching a campaign this spring to attract more subscribers to its mass notification system, Alert LA County. As of this month, there were around 70,000 contacts who had registered countywide.
L.A. County officials tested their newly upgraded Alert LA County system on Wednesday for residents of unincorporated Topanga. The new system allows users to more easily register, input their information and update it to receive these life-saving notifications via phone messages, emails or text, according to Jorge Anaya, emergency program manager for the county’s Office of Emergency Management.
It also allows users to choose alerts in up to five different foreign languages – including Spanish, Chinese, and Russian – with more languages in the works.
“We want to make sure that individuals can quickly receive information that’s easy to digest … so that people can take action,” Chavez added, noting the mass notification system is just one tool the county uses to notify residents of disasters.
The new Alert L.A. County system is more flexible than the prior one, observed Scott Ferguson, board chair of the Topanga Coalition for Emergency Preparedness, a nonprofit that provides preparedness education and verified information to Topanga residents during a disaster.
Not only can you enter more phone numbers to get multiple notifications, but you can also enter your Voice over Internet Protocol (VOIP) number, he said.
“A lot of people in Topanga don’t have traditional landline phones” and instead use internet phones, Ferguson explained. “Those aren’t in the 911 database automatically (to receive emergency notification calls) so those have to be registered in the system.”
Earlier this month, emergency authorities in Santa Barbara County announced they are eliminating the word “voluntary” from language used in evacuation orders following the devastating mudslides that struck in January. Some argue the language created a false sense of security for some victims who did not understand the level of potential threat.
But these improvements will not address all concerns residents have had in relation to recent wildfires, the impact of which still concerns local officials, who fear such blazes year-round in the midst of worrisome changes in Southern California’s seasons in recent years and the rekindled drought fears of the past few months.
‘On my own’[hhmc]
The piercing sound of a smoke detector woke Sarah Olson at her upper Kagel Canyon home sometime after 4 a.m. on the morning of Dec. 5.
She assumed the battery had died and when she went into the hallway to shut it off. But she saw a red glow emanating from her living room and kitchen windows.
After seeing her home’s wooden fence ablaze amid flying embers, she managed to grab one of her two cats, her purse, her rubber garden shoes and her phone before fleeing the Creek fire in her pajamas.
The blaze would devour the home she had recently started renting in unincorporated Los Angeles County – and everything in it. Her cat, Jagger, is still missing.
Although first responders from Los Angeles county and city scrambled to knock on doors and blare warnings over PA systems to alert as many affected residents as possible, some said they received no formal notification as the fast-moving Creek fire raced toward them.
“If it weren’t for the smoke detector, I believe I would be dead or in a burn unit,” said Olson, who later realized she had failed to hear the honks of her neighbor who fled the upper canyon before her.
“I was totally on my own as my house was burning around me – no assistance from fire or sheriff officials whatsoever,” she said.
Olson’s neighbor, Jacqui Bally, saw the fire barreling toward her around the same time local fire officials were first notified that morning. But she believes “there was no time” for authorities to evacuate people there.
Bally scrambled to wake up her husband – who then woke up their teen-aged son and daughter – and then pounded on doors and honked her car horn to wake up neighbors as flying embers and rocks stung her face.
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Fire officials from the Angeles National Forest were alerted around 3:45 a.m. that a fire was burning in the Little Tujunga Canyon area. But within about five minutes, Bally said, “it had already burned over two ridges” into Kagel Canyon.
By the time she fled around 4:25 a.m., the inferno was burning a side yard of her home on Purple Ridge Road. Bally drove down Kagel Canyon Road through “walls of fire,” an experience that still haunts her.
The Kagel Canyon Civic Association has its own emergency notification system for its members. It was deployed, but Bally acknowledged she had let her membership lapse.
Some Los Angeles city residents have also expressed concerns about not being notified in those early hours.
Kristin Sabo, who lives on Longford Street which dead-ends into the Little Tujunga Canyon, said she was awakened by the Creek fire at 5:45 a.m. Dec. 5 by helicopters “with the fire almost directly behind my house.”
“There were zero city agency people on my street,” she said in an email. “We had to guess when to get out and do it.”
Due to shifting winds, Sabo ended up having about three hours to evacuate the horses on her property, pack up her birds and belongings in the car. But if the wind “had gone straight, I would have had about 20 minutes,” she added in an interview.
Zero lives lost[hhmc]
Ferrari, the LAFD battalion chief and evacuation branch director for the first 24 hours of the fire, said it’s difficult to respond to such concerns without knowing all of the circumstances. But for example, there might have been a fire engine or a patrol car down the street ready to deploy into Sabo’s neighborhood if needed.
When residents call 911, it helps first responders determine where the firefront is located and how fast it’s traveling, allowing them to better deploy their limited resources, he added.
And there are often limits to dealing with Mother Nature.
“You have thousands and thousands of residents and thousands of homes and you only have so many emergency responders … How do you possibly get to everyone quick enough to notify them?” Ferrari said.
But their success, he said, is evidenced by the fact that roughly 100,000 people evacuated during the fire and no human lives were lost. That’s “pretty powerful” considering the voracity of the fire that confronted them, he added.
“Successfully evacuating people and getting them out of harm’s way is the primary goal…and I think that’s our report card,” Ferrari said.
In addition, wildfires are hyper-dynamic events and can erupt and “get in front of even the most sophisticated early-warning systems,” noted Jeff Reeb, director of L.A. County’s Office of Emergency Management.
Meanwhile, the Los Angeles Fire Department, one of several agencies that fought the blaze, will conduct an after-action report, to determine lessons learned from the fire, including concerning evacuations of people and animals, said Los Angeles City Councilman Mitchell Englander, chair of the council’s public safety committee and a volunteer LAPD reserve officer. Dozens of horses, some of whom were locked in stables, perished in the fire.
Englander echoed the notion that notifications in the city worked well because no civilians were reported injured in the fire. Yet it’s also up to individuals to be prepared on their own because resources are always limited in a disaster, Englander said.
“People don’t always prepare,” he said, “let alone practice and rehearse.”
Mass notification alerts[hhmc]
During the Creek fire, the city of Los Angeles’ mass-notification warnings – including calls to landlines and registered cell phones – began at about 7 a.m., more than three hours after the Creek Fire was reported, according to city documents. That was after the incident command determined where evacuations would take place.
And a small number of affected L.A. County residents started receiving mass notifications in the Kagel Canyon area after 8:30 a.m.
Authorities suggest that timing isn’t out of the ordinary. Evacuation orders are not given immediately when a wildland fire erupts, but only once fire officials determine they cannot contain a fire and its movement is threatening homes, said Nicole Nishida, a spokeswoman for the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department.
Deputy personnel – who go door to door and advise residents of evacuation orders – comprise the county’s main method of notifying people, she said. Mass-notification alerts are considered an “extra layer” in their notification process.
Each wildfire or disaster is different and can change in a second – and when to notify a particular community of a potential threat is often a subjective decision, noted Lt. Sandra L. Peetom of the Sheriff’s Department Emergency Operations Bureau.
Unlike within L.A. city limits, L.A. County sheriff’s officials and emergency management personnel did not have the capability to send out wireless emergency alerts – a federal system that uses cell towers to deliver critical warnings and information to the public – during the Creek fire. That’s because their old operating system did not allow it.
The new mass-notification system, which was launched this month, does have that capability.
Much like Amber Alerts, these messages are received by those with cell phones or other wireless emergency alert-enabled devices in a particular geographic area without them having to register in advance.
“So if you’re visiting or at a friend’s house or from out of state, and you’re in that area and we send out a (wireless emergency alert) message, that will hit your cell phone,” said Peetom, adding that it’s the first time the county has this capability.
“It’s fantastic for us.”
Some emergency management officials have expressed their reluctance to use this federal warning system because it’s been known to target geographic areas that are overly broad. For example, it was cited by Sonoma County officials during the Tubbs fire in October of 2017, where ultimately dozens died.
But on Jan. 30, the Federal Communications Commission adopted new rules to improve the “geographic targeting” of these wireless alerts in an effort to promote the service’s “wider use and effectiveness” by state and local authorities.
Starting Nov. 30, 2019, participating wireless providers will be required to deliver these alerts to more precise geographic areas so that they reach the communities impacted by an emergency without disturbing others.
By May 1 of next year, participating wireless providers must also support Spanish-language messages and extend the maximum length of alert messages from 90 to 360 characters.
Big City Emergency Managers, a nonprofit that includes the city of Los Angeles, have been lobbying for graphic capabilities in these messages, which could have been helpful during the Creek fire, said Sahakian of the city of L.A.’s emergency management department.
“If you have capability of sending graphics, and if you have the capability of sending (images of) the emergency response route and what streets are closed…all that’s good data,” he said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.