Jenny Novak, MEP, CEM®

Emergency Manager | Speaker | Writer

Category: Emergency Management

Evacuation Messaging: Best Practices from the Thomas Fire

Today marks two years since I made my first middle of the night drive 90 miles up the 101 freeway to respond to disaster in Ventura County. The Thomas Fire ignited near Santa Paula December 4, 2017 and within hours had forced evacuations 15 miles to the west in the City of Ventura. It would grow to become the largest wildfire in California history at that time. In 2018 I had the pleasure of presenting Ventura County OES with a California Emergency Services Association Exceptional Service Award for emergency management best practices in response to the Thomas Fire.  There were so many lessons learned and so many emotional moments during the response that I can’t even begin to capture them all in one article.

The most critical function that was coordinated out of the Ventura EOC was the crafting and dissemination of emergency evacuation messages. This was the action that undoubtedly saved lives during the fast moving fire that started at night and threw people off guard when they realized ‘that brush fire in Santa Paula’ was lapping at backyards in Ventura. So today I am focusing just on the stellar emergency notification process that Ventura County OES honed during the fire. I’ll break down their EOC structure and processes into several parts so you can see how the system functioned.

The first WEA alert for the Thomas Fire.

Methods of Notification

In addition to traditional door to door notices by officers, news media partnerships and social media, the Ventura EOC primarily handled two methods: an opt-in system called ‘VC Alert’ that was coordinated through EverBridge software and the Wireless Emergency Alert through FEMA’s Integrated Public Alert & Warning System (aka the technology that gives us Amber Alerts). The EOC heavily used VC Alert with detailed information about who was being evacuated, since this information could be shared with very targeted geographic areas and everyone receiving it had already indicated their interest by signing up for the system. They could also receive notifications through email, voice call and text message. This method is great but since it relies on sign ups, they knew that it only reached a small fraction of the county’s population. On that fateful night, the Ventura EOC Director made the decision to ‘push the big red button’ and utilize WEA for their first time ever when they realized how dire the situation was and needed to get the word out far and wide as quickly as possible. The WEA alerted everyone with a cell phone in that part of the county about the fast moving fire and directed them to seek emergency information on the VC Emergency website. The number of characters that can be included in a WEA is limited so they had to be very concise and could not share evacuation area specifics.

Thomas Fire perimeter map from early in the fire’s progression.

Alert & Warning Coordinator

Both the WEA and VCAlert messages were crafted from an Alert and Warning position within the EOC’s Planning Section. This person was knowledgeable in EverBridge and IPAWS. it was definitely a highly skilled position that needed to be filled by highly trained VCOES staff. The position coordinated directly with an EOC liaison at the Incident Command Post in order to obtain the latest evacuation orders coming from Law and Fire. This position also provided the intel from the field to the Website Coordinators in the Situation Unit and to the Planning Section Coordinator and the EOC Director. He or she was always a very popular and busy person during the activation. If you wanted the latest and greatest information on what the fire was doing, you went to this person.

Briefing at the Thomas Fire Incident Command Post.

The EOC Liaison at the ICP

The EOC Liaison was physically stationed at the ICP although he/she was an actual Emergency Manager who was part of the VCOES team. I think this is a great practice because this person’s sole responsibility was to watch out for information about evacuations and immediately relay it to the EOC. When this responsibility is tacked onto the already full plate of fire and law personnel it may slip through the cracks. A physical presence is also important so that Incident Command will have that constant reminder of emergency management needs and resources that can be coordinated through the EOC. It is also great for building strong relationships with law and fire partners—standing side by side in the smoke together solidifies a bond that can never be replicated over the phone.

The Website Coordinator(s)

Within the situation unit, there was one person entirely dedicated to making sure that the VC Emergency website was kept up to date with all the current details of the incident. Most importantly this was evacuation information, but it grew to include information on shelters, school closures, air quality information, road closures, and more. It included a detailed, interactive map that was kept up to date with real time evacuation information through the assistance of a GIS specialist also working within the planning section. The website was such a critical mechanism for the public to maintain information about the response that it actually temporarily crashed due to high volume on the first night. It was certainly a lesson learned for future responses to ensure that your website can handle a sudden increase in traffic during an emergency situation. As the fire continued to burn and keep community members out of their homes for two weeks, the need for providing better real-time information in Spanish became apparent. They were originally using Google Translate to provide the information in Spanish, however the system was imperfect as ‘brushfire’ was translated into ‘hairbrush’ along with other unintentional translation mishaps. Ventura eventually expanded the team to add a bilingual website position that was responsible for keeping a Spanish version of the site up to date whenever the English version was updated.

EOC organization chart from the Thomas Fire.

The EOC Hotline

The Ventura EOC also housed a hotline call center with a minimum of 2 staff at all times to answer any inquiries from the public. The hotline number was shared far and wide on social and traditional media. The call volume would have put a burden on an emergency dispatch center and would have been overwhelming for a single public information position. Call center staff answered phones and mainly utilized the website to share information with the public about what was going on in the fire. Even though people could’ve just looked at the website on their own, many felt better about interacting with an actual human being. They were also able to request additional information or get messages into the EOC if needed. I believe this function is vital within or directly adjacent to an EOC and it is often overlooked with the assumption that dispatch will be able to handle it. Within the org chart, the call center fell under the Public Information function, and the Call Center Supervisor reported to the PIO for questions and connected the calls for media interviews to him.

Inside the EOC.

The EOC Collateral Program

You might wonder how Ventura was able to staff all these positions using their emergency management team and the answer is that they didn’t. They created an optional program called the ‘EOC Collateral Program’ where staff from other county departments could volunteer to undergo training to augment EOC functions and earn overtime during emergency activations. This program is truly a best practice because everyone participating applied, interviewed, and underwent significant training. These staff viewed the experience as a privilege rather than as an unfortunate ‘other duty as assigned.’ The way this program was framed by OES as competitive and selective created a culture of people who actually wanted to help out in the EOC. People in this program staffed the website, situation status, call center, and logistics support functions.

Public Information Officer(s)

Both Fire and Law provided PIOs to the EOC. These PIOs were primarily responsible for giving media interviews, drafting press releases, and coordinating EOC visits for media or dignitaries. Social media for this response was handled by field personnel for fire and law. The EOC did not utilize its own Twitter Account for emergency notifications since they had not built up a following or trained on that method.

Presenting Ventura OES with the Exceptional Service Award at the 2018 CESA Conference.

Saving Lives

Emergency notification is an extremely critical function that should be coordinated through the EOC rather than at the field level whenever possible. Ventura had learned from the mistakes of Sonoma County just two months earlier during the wine country fires of October 2017 when 44 lives were lost as the fire swept through neighborhoods in the middle of the night. Their decision not to use WEA limited the spread of life saving information, and I believe that Ventura’s decision to send its first WEA absolutely reduced the loss of life in the Thomas Fire. There is much that can be learned from the response and recovery from such a major disaster, but I believe these are the most salient emergency management lessons to be shared on this day of remembrance.

Mass Shooting Response: Different than ‘Natural’ Disasters

Today is the one-year anniversary of the Borderline Bar and Grill mass shooting incident that occurred in Thousand Oaks in Ventura County, California. With so many of these types of incidents occurring each year in the U.S., you might not recall the details of this particular one. A gunman (young male ex-Marine) entered the popular line dancing / country music establishment just before midnight on college night. He shot staff members, then opened fire on the patrons as they fled, many jumping from second story windows to escape. Two officers made entry and engaged in a shootout with the suspect, Ventura County Sergeant Ron Helus was fatally wounded. The gunman killed himself before authorities attempted a second entry. A total of 12 innocent lives, mostly college students, were taken that night. The incident hit Thousand Oaks hard and the community was still reeling from the tragedy when many residents were forced to evacuate from the Woolsey Fire less than 24 hours later.

This was also the first (and currently the only) mass shooting incident that I ever responded to. As I listen to the news broadcasts about the community healing events and the dedication of the Ron Helus memorial highway today I am remembering how this tragedy impacted me personally and what elements made this response unique among all the natural hazards induced disasters that I’ve responded to. At the time, I hadn’t yet found out I was pregnant with Scarlett. So much has changed in this year and it’s given me the clarity to reflect honestly on what was the craziest day in my emergency response career so far, and how responding to this man made disaster was different in many ways than responding to nature induced disasters.

The view from the Central Ave overpass of Highway 101 during the law enforcement procession for Sgt Helus.

A Different Rhythm

Unlike the frequent wildfire / hurricane / storm responses that we emergency managers are used to dealing with mass shootings are quick. For ‘natural’ disasters we usually have days to ramp up our response as weather predictions show us when the danger is likely to occur to our communities. The response period is prolonged as we issue evacuations and then monitor sheltering and impacts with our EOC’s active for several days or weeks until the threat has passed. With mass shootings, nearly 70% end in less than 5 minutes. Of course, we are still in response mode while first responders arrive and establish command on the scene. But the incident very quickly enters the recovery phrase, the threat has passed in the blink of an eye and as emergency managers our role is entirely to deal with the aftermath. Your EOC does not need a position dedicated to advanced planning, weather monitoring or predictive services on fire behavior. These incidents are extremely hot and heavy—they come on quickly with intensity and are almost always totally unexpected. The good news is that your EOC activation will not last long, the bad news is that you will immediately have fatalities and that always ups the ante on any response.

News stations at the Ventura EOC report on the status of the shooter.

Criminal Investigations

Because you already have fatalities and these were no accidental deaths, your coordination will have to work around a criminal investigation of the incident. That does mean that your incident command post will need to be organized to endure for a much longer duration than law enforcement led incidents usually do. There will be new partners descending on the scene to fill their roles and your agency may have never worked with them before. One of the most critical being the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) and their Victim Services Division. Your state may also have a victim services branch that will want to be involved in the response. This means that your field staff will almost certainly be seeing a lot of new faces at the ICP, but if you have taken the time to plan and train in advance they should at least be aware of the support these agencies can offer and what their processes are like. Be aware that victim identification may take longer than it would for a single shooting or for a nature induced incident because of the ongoing criminal investigation and the involvement of the FBI as they determine whether the incident will be categorized as terrorism.

The cover of the EOC Action plan for the incident.

The Role of Emergency Managers

The most important role that emergency managers should own in these incidents is to coordinate a Family Assistance / Reunification Center. I prefer the terminology ‘Assistance’ Center since inherently some will not be reunified with loved ones and the usage of this word can bring unnecessary additional grief to the families of the deceased. At the Ventura County EOC supporting the logistics of both the Incident Command Post and the Family Assistance Center quickly became our primary focus. The ICP will need things like lighting, barricades, and additional security measures to protect the responders from the public due to the sensitive nature of the response. The Family Assistance Center will need a location, and agency representatives who can assist families including behavioral health staff, chaplains, the American Red Cross and any other local NGO’s who can offer support, and law enforcement representatives to provide and collect information. Both locations will need basic items like tables and chairs and it helps to create a comforting environment to be able to provide things like tissue, snacks, and coffee at the Family Assistance Center. It’s ideal to get this going very quickly to alleviate the pressure on the ICP as family members and media will be drawn to the scene of the crime. If you have a FAC plan in place with locations and agency contacts predetermined it will certainly expedite the process. Remember that this could happen in the middle of the night, as it did in Thousand Oaks, so having 24-hour points of contact for facilities and agencies is ideal.

The memorial for the victims outside the Borderline Grill.

Gun Control Politics

Your jurisdiction will quickly become the focus of national and international news attention. You shouldn’t be surprised if you’re trending on Twitter very quickly and ‘your town + strong’ becomes a popular hashtag. People are shocked and horrified by mass shootings, and the attention will be immediate and intensely laser focused on the incident. Although natural disasters may cause more physical destruction and also take lives, mass shootings are seen as more preventable and the brutal intentionality of these incidents draws the attention of the nation, if not the world. During the Borderline incident, we were shocked to receive an interview request in Hebrew from a news outlet in Israel. When planning for mass shootings, the importance of effective public information cannot be overstated. You must have your best PIOs available both at the ICP and in the EOC to disseminate accurate information, showcase what your agency is doing to respond, and to convey compassion. You will also find yourself thrown unwillingly into the national gun debate immediately and both elected officials and PIOs should be equipped to respond appropriately to heavily political questions they may receive. I highly recommend testing public information as a core capability during mass shooting exercises as it can become overwhelming quickly and commanding messaging with clarity and dignity is critical in how your response and your community will be portrayed and remembered in the international eye.

Each victim was honored with memorabilia and items specific to their interests and personalities.

Emotional Nature

The absolute most important element of a mass shooting response in contrast to a natural hazard incident is the intensity of the emotions involved. Be prepared for an extremely somber atmosphere, your EOC will feel very different than it does during routine weather events. While your EOC staff will be working very hard to fulfill their roles, they will also be very distraught, saddened, and scared that such a horrific tragedy has occurred in their community. In Ventura, everyone knew Sgt Helus, he had trained with the EOC team and had been involved in the Thomas Fire response the previous year. So while the team was working hard intellectually to deal with an unprecedented type of response, they were also working extremely hard emotionally to process that a colleague had been murdered. In the December 2015 San Bernardino terrorist attack, the victims included many county staff who were attacked during a holiday luncheon. These incidents often hit very close to home for those of us involved in the response and can have ramifications for continuity of operations as well. When everyone on the team is devastated by the deaths of colleagues or if some of the victims include the team members, how can you continue to respond and provide services to the community? While it’s a very delicate subject and nearly impossible to fully prepare for, I recommend that these personal elements be tested and discussed during any emergency exercises with mass shooting scenarios. And if you are responding to an EOC for a mass shooting as an outside agency representative, remember that this is deeply personal. While you may have dealt with loss of life during a disaster before, as we had recently in the Montecito mudslides incident, this was different, this was intentional murder. Take off your vest for a moment and remember that you are all human beings and the most important thing is to recognize and honor the humanity of those responding beside you. They are dealing with loss while still performing their duties and they can use your personal support. The night that I responded to Borderline, I wore my Ventura OES polo instead of my CalOES one (against protocol). I hoped this small, non-verbal gesture would show them that on that night I responded as one of them. I greeted each of the team members with compassion, looking into their eyes and telling each that I was sorry for their loss, as I realized these were not simply my colleagues they were my friends. I came that night not just as a state employee supporting local government, but as a human being honoring their organization and giving all of myself to the team however I could.

A painting of hero Ron Helus at his memorial on 11/15/18.

In Remembrance

Today, I honor the memory of those innocent lives that were taken too soon a year ago and particularly the heroism of Ron Helus, who died trying to stop additional murders in his hometown. The community of Thousand Oaks has been through a tremendous amount of adversity in the past year and it’s been my honor to support them as a state liaison. It’s important to remember that while these incidents will be ‘over’ quickly, the healing and recovery process will take years. Thousand Oaks has responded with some innovative outlets for community healing, including a writing project and a community healing garden. In remembrance of this tragedy, take some time today to think about your own plans for an active shooter and what you can add or exercise next to remain vigilant to the nuances of these man made incidents.