Last week amidst the continued frenzy of the COVID-19 response, I hit a big milestone: my three year anniversary working for the California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services (CalOES). This is a milestone I’ve come close to at a couple different jobs but have never surpassed. Prior to this position all of my experience comes from the local and campus level (and a touch of private & NGO sectors). When I set out on this journey three years ago, I wasn’t quite sure what it would bring. I was hoping to gain response experience (big check) and gain a broader understanding of emergency management functions over multiple jurisdictions (check). Today I’m reflecting on what the major lessons and takeaways have been thus far.
The Heartbeat of Incident Response
The past three years have been some of the very busiest response years in the state’s history. My first 6 months were eerily quiet, but ever since then we haven’t stopped engaging in either response or recovery. We saw some of the state’s largest wildfires and I was directly involved in response and recovery for the Thomas Fire and the Woolsey Fire in Ventura County. I also responded to the Borderline shooting in 2018 and now I’m embedded in a pandemic response. Our agency responded to the earthquakes in Trona / Ridgecrest last summer too while I was out on maternity leave.
While there are many detailed technical lessons I’ve learned, I would say the important big picture take away from all this experience is a better understanding of the battle rhythm of these incidents, particularly wildfires since there have been so many. I’m no stranger to the flurry of information, the whirlwind adrenaline and anxiety of a wildfire sparking during Santa Ana winds and the lifesaving push for evacuations. I have endured the weeks long EOC activations and felt the burn out from both responders and evacuated residents. I have navigated the turn from a response toward a recovery and rebuilding effort. I have settled in for the long haul and partnered up with FEMA for major disaster recovery operations and the establishment of long term recovery groups. Each phase comes with a different pace, a different flavor and different prioritized information needs.
Responsiveness for Relationship Building
It’s been said time and time again, so I won’t take time to explain that relationships are key in emergency management. But I will share one strategy to build good relationships that I have discovered during my time with CalOES: Responsiveness. It can certainly be difficult to practice, especially when we are all so busy right now with this response or even just in the normal day to day managing our own programs. It can be tempting to only reply quickly to the most time sensitive emails, or to the ones that will impact you the most directly (i.e. the ones from the boss). But, I have really tried to pride myself on being responsive to inquiries from colleagues both in and outside of my organization and I have found it to pay dividends.
My role is a little bit tricky because while as a regional liaison I am the face of the organization to many of my EM colleagues in SoCal, I also work in a field office and am not directly embedded within all the various state programming in Sacramento. Accordingly I get a lot of questions thrown my way and I often don’t know the answers. At first I felt embarrassed about this and it was tempting to just flag an email and let it sit. No one in my chain of command would ever know if I just didn’t field the question. Instead, I have practiced replying quickly to the person–it lets them know that I care about their question or concern, that I’m here for them and that I will try to advocate for them and get their question answered as quickly as I can. Then I try to dig up answers. If I do know the answer, I try to reply right away even from my phone while I’m in the field instead of waiting to get back to my computer the next day. People have really appreciated this “customer service” type of strategy, and I believe that relationships are strengthened significantly when we engage in these small exchanges of information and correspondence.
The Importance of Teams
The majority of Emergency Management jobs are one person shops that do not come with a dedicated team. One of the things that I’ve enjoyed the most about working at the state level is that I am a part of a massive extended team and a close knit team here in the Southern Region. Throughout the years I’ve seen our team step up to support each other through the good times and the bad and I’m so happy to work with a great group of folks. When I needed to take time off to have a baby last year, I wasn’t worried at all because I knew I was leaving my projects in capable hands and that the team would be able to backfill me. It’s one of the perks I treasure the most.
Just because your position doesn’t come with a built in team, doesn’t mean that you can’t work to build one. Most of us manage EOC’s and that can be a great place to start. You may not be able to groom anyone on your EOC team to fall in love with EM quite as much as you have, but you can at least work to get one or two good EOC coordinator backups or train up a Planning or Sit Stat Unit to alleviate some of the stress from an incident falling 100% on your shoulders. During my time as the EM for Cal State Northridge, I worked to build a ‘preparedness coalition’ that became my interdepartmental team. I held regular meetings and got them jazzed about some of the fun preparedness events I was planning. My enthusiasm and angle of making it enjoyable got a couple of them hooked and even scored one of them a trip to the White House with me to accept a FEMA Individual & Community Preparedness Award for our efforts. It might not be the easiest or most obvious solution but I think that operating as part of a team is extremely important for emergency managers.
Working for the state, I feel like we constantly have to work toward attaining an appropriate balance. Mainly between providing the leadership that is sought from our large, statewide agency and respecting the expertise and unparalleled local knowledge of our Southern California emergency managers. We have to find the sweet spot between stringent mandates and hands off silence, often opting for issuing a kind of ‘guidance’ on hot topic issues. However, sometimes our initiatives are tied to local eligibility for state funding and this is when we can quickly fall from favor if our guidelines are too demanding or not so feasible. During my 3 year tenure I have heard both opinions: “the state should be doing more,” and “the state keeps pushing things on us and asking too many questions.”
One niche that I think we can fill to maintain some balance is by identifying and creating opportunities to share best practices. Because I work with eleven counties in my role, I am uniquely positioned to see and hear about different programs and processes that have been successful in different jurisdictions. I see it as an excellent utilization of our position to be able to make others aware of these best practices and to create forums for this type of information sharing. While I haven’t really been able to create brand new initiatives, I have tried my best to bring these best practices into some of the forums I do have influence over, such as our quarterly mutual aid committee meetings and the recent workshops for our catastrophic earthquake plan. I would love to work to expand these efforts in the future and continue to provide that mechanism for sharing.
It’s been a great ride and I’ve really enjoyed the journey so far. Although sometimes I miss having my own program and a more hands on role, I wouldn’t trade these past three years for anything. What kind of lessons do you think are important to share from your level with EM’s from other types of jurisdictions?
I am an Emergency Manager–but what the heck does that mean? I like to explain my job as a California Emergency Manager as ‘like FEMA but for the state.’ While the majority of the general public has not heard of emergency management, they have heard of FEMA and generally understand that FEMA works on disaster response, recovery and preparedness. Positions like mine exist for cities and counties too, as well as universities, school districts, museums, and many large corporations like Disney, Target and Walmart.
So right now, while the world is in a state of emergency due to a global pandemic I want to take some time to tell you what we emergency managers are doing and further explain why our function is important. It’s important to note that we are working very collaboratively with public health professionals and that while most of the subject matter expertise is in their court, we play a major role in supporting them.
Facilitating the resource request process is a critical function of emergency managers. When we say ‘resource’ it can mean any supply, material, or personnel needed to accomplish the mission. The scope of this disaster is massive and literally every entity is involved in this response, which makes resource coordination trickier than usual. In California, when a city runs out of a resource, they will in turn ask their local county if they are able to help, if not the county will make an ask for state assistance. If the state can’t fill the request, we will ask the federal government for help. Emergency managers are in charge of creating and managing the way that this information is transmitted by the various levels of government. These are the common types of resource requests that we are helping with in the pandemic:
Personal Protective Equipment such as N95 masks, gloves, Tyvek suits and gowns
Disinfecting wipes and hand sanitizer
Trailers to provide isolation space for quarantine of homeless populations
Personnel to assist with food distribution
Personnel to assist with onsite logistics for medical field hospitals and drive thru testing sites
Cots, blankets, and hygiene supplies for congregate shelters
Meals Ready to Eat (emergency food for first responders)
Communication equipment to support virtual operations to ensure better social distancing.
Body bags for mass fatality planning.
It’s important to note that the public health side of the house has their own resource ordering system so they handle the ordering and distribution for actual medical equipment and medically trained staff.
Producing Situation Reports
Another key function of emergency managers is to coordinate information. An incident like this is incredibly dynamic as the situation changes daily. We try to keep track of all the updates in our assigned areas and produce reports that can be shared with partner agencies to keep everyone on the same page. We also work with GIS folks to create dashboards that are interactive and accessible to the public. We are working closely with public health on this, since they are the keepers of the official case and fatality counts. Information you might not think of that’s important to us include:
Actions of other departments within our agencies
Emergency Operations Center activations within our areas (the coordination centers where we work together)
The status of emergency proclamations by our local governments and requests for state / federal assistance (the legal documentation of states of emergencies)
The number of resource requests pending and filled
The status of first responders (i.e. are police and fire at full functioning status)
The status of executive emergency orders such as business / public facility closures, banning of gatherings, etc.
Press conferences scheduled / public information that has been disseminated
While collecting data for situation reports from other departments, emergency managers are also learning about continuity of their organization. This is an especially important function of private sector agency emergency managers. In an event like COVID-19, it’s important for us to understand how employee absenteeism and/or telework is impacting the mission of the agency overall and if we are still able to meet our customer service goals–including continuity of government for public agencies. In a pandemic this is really critical and I think that as the situation continues to evolve the focus will shift a bit toward organizational continuity, especially as closures endure for months. How will businesses stay afloat? Can their models evolve toward delivery or online service / products? I’ve seen many yoga studios and gyms move toward online courses and our schools are being forced to rapidly evolve to meet their goals. Emergency managers (and business continuity managers) play a huge role in planning for this and helping the organization continue to meet its goals.
Managing Public Information
Emergency Managers also have a responsibility for keeping the public informed about emergency actions that are being taken. An emergency management department typically has a Public Information Officer assigned or works closely with a PIO from another department to ensure that talking points for press conferences are vetted, press releases have actionable and accurate information and that social media is engaged with current information. During press conferences, I’ve seen the Emergency Management Director of California, as well as the City of Los Angeles, make appearances. I have also seen agencies utilizing the Wireless Emergency Alert system (i.e. the Amber alert function on your phone) to send messaging to all cell phones in their areas. I’ve gotten several notifications with COVID-19 updates from my City’s emergency notification system too.
Planning for Recovery
As Emergency Managers we plan for all functions of the ‘disaster cycle.’ That includes planning for the aftermath of the incident–even though it feels like it might never come in this one. What is the future going to look like economically for the agency? How many citizens in the jurisdiction might be impacted by unemployment? In this disaster, because we don’t have debris removal or rebuilding to worry about, our focus will be on helping people and businesses to get through this in order for our communities to return to normalcy. What existing social service programs can be expanded to support people in the aftermath of this crisis? We also apply for reimbursement from the federal government through the disaster cost recovery process. In coordination with grants personnel we fill out the forms needed to account for all the overtime and ‘emergency protective measures’ that we expended during the response so that our local jurisdictions can recoup some of what was spent in this already very expensive disaster.
How Can You Help?
Now that you have a better understanding of what emergency managers are doing during this pandemic, you may be thinking what can I do to support the mission? Here are three ways…
Keep Emergency Supplies: What I’m hoping will be a major takeaway for the general public is to keep a disaster preparedness kit–including food and toilet paper!–ready for future disasters. We saw how everyone made a run on the stores and the negative impacts that had. Make sure you’ve got some emergency food and water already stored up. We were lucky no major supply chain impacts (besides some disruptions to PPE) have occurred in this disaster, but the next one may cause major physical damage that will disrupt supply lines. Take this as a lesson to have what you need to survive on hand before it happens.
Know How to Stay Informed: We hope you are more dialed into the emergency channels now–hopefully you’ve signed up for emergency alerts in your local jurisdiction and/or followed them on Twitter and other social media. This is a great way to stay informed. The COVID response is somewhat slow moving compared to other disasters, so it’s a good idea to continue to follow these outlets closely in future emergencies.
Advocate for Emergency Planning: And finally if you’re ever in a position where you can speak up about the importance of funding emergency management, please do! We are the ones working behind the scene to make improvements to the plans, processes, and systems so that we can respond swiftly to the next disaster. Give us a shout out to your executive management or let your local representative know!
This disaster is nowhere near over, in fact I think things will continue to escalate in the United States for weeks. Yet the global pandemic of 2020, COVID-19, has already changed the field of emergency management forever.
The word I keep finding myself using is unprecedented. I know we’ve said that before, to the devastation of the Camp Fire in 2018, the colossal losses in the Carribean when two category five hurricanes hit within 10 days, the drain on resources in Ventura County when a mass shooting occurred within hours of two major wildfires breaking out, the destruction of the Tohoku earthquake and pan-Pacific tsunami…all of these were catastrophic, for the jurisdictions they impacted. But none of these were global disasters. They were all regional. In California, we are always planning for the Big One, we just recently put a ton of time and effort into developing a Catastrophic Earthquake Plan for Southern California. It was always seen as this extreme scenario that would truly test our limits. But even in that seemingly extreme scenario there would be outside resources available, we could activate mutual aid systems and rely on our neighboring states, or at least the East Coast to alleviate some of our burden. If people wanted to escape the devastated region, they could migrate to other parts of the country as we saw with the diaspora following Hurricane Katrina.
The pandemic is different. You cannot escape it, because you don’t know exactly where it is. You have to assume that it is literally everywhere in the world. Every jurisdiction is impacted. Everyone is proclaiming an emergency and everyone is activating their EOC (as of this morning there were 106 EOC’s activated in Southern California). The scale is just enormous, and I don’t think that it’s something that the state or the federal government ever really thought through or anticipated to the degree that we are now impacted. As it turns out when everyone everywhere is impacted a lot of the assumptions we have always made about emergency management change. How can the federal government possibly reimburse every jurisdiction? How can we make and distribute tens of millions of masks, gloves and other supplies everywhere simultaneously? Can FEMA and the American Red Cross be everywhere at once? Neighbors can’t help neighbors if everyone is impacted and if getting too close to each other puts our lives at risk. As we move forward from COVID-19 I anticipate a new subset of this field focused solely on global disasters, and not in the distant mythical kind of approach that we always used when talking about ‘megadisasters’ before.
The pandemic will be a great equalizer in a way because now every emergency manager who was working in 2020 has response experience. Obviously everyone’s role is a little different right now, but in some way literally all of us are having to respond or adapt our planning because of COVID-19. There are many emergency managers for small jurisdictions who might have NEVER had to activate their EOC in the twenty years they were working there. There are cities I have never even heard of in Southern California that now have activated EOCs. Some of us that activate regularly are getting a whole new kind of experience–one where there are real resource requests that need to be filled ASAP and LOTS of them. There are true shortages of supplies in this incident and we are all using that system for real now, not just talking about it in an exercise scenario. No matter what type of jurisdiction or what your role is, if you are an emergency manager in 2020 you have now earned your pandemic response badge. This response will be the topic of discussion and dissection for many years to come, everyone will have a story to tell and every jurisdiction is learning how to better operate their EOC’s after this incident.
Safety in the EOC
In most responses that I’ve been a part of, the Safety Officer position in the EOC typically became an ‘other duty as assigned’ because there was just not enough to do. This position makes a lot of sense in the field, at the ICP for a shooting or a wildfire, but EOC’s are pretty inherently safe working environments. Most of them are secured facilities that are built to withstand earthquakes, hurricanes, car bombs, etc. When non-EM friends see my posts about responding to fires, they typically say ‘stay safe’ without realizing that when I respond to an EOC I’m responding to an office like environment. I’ve joked many times that the biggest hazard for me is the 10 pounds I’ll inevitably gain from sitting too much and snacking on EOC food all day. But in this incident, all of the sudden our jobs did become dangerous. The Safety Officer is now critical in protecting EOC staff from spreading the virus–implementing medical screenings, keeping a strict sanitation schedule and ensuring work spaces are 6 feet apart are enough to keep any one person busy all day. Things we normally don’t think about like sharing a common pen with the sign in sheet, or using a common key pad to access a facility…all of these practices have now become hazardous.
It is also distressing in a way that many of us aren’t used to. If you came into this field having studied it and are passionate about operating at a coordination level separate from the field operations, this is probably the first time your job has truly been dangerous. We are not first responders, like firefighters and police officers. We aren’t used to putting our lives and our family’s safety on the line by going to work and now many of us are. I know several EOC’s that don’t have the space to practice social distancing–cramming 50-100 bodies into a small room and spending 12+ hours there. In the future, this is going to become a huge consideration for how we can better protect ourselves. I also think some of us may have a lot to chew on mentally–myself included–about whether we want to work in a job that can be so dangerous.
The discussion of safety in the EOC leads me to my next point. Most of us aren’t well equipped enough in our processes and procedures to take our operations virtual at this point. Some of our essential functions are still done with pen and paper, or with T-cards, or with hard copy 214’s, or with a desktop computer that has to be hooked up to a certain server. Many are scrambling right now to be able to execute the essential functions of their EOC’s remotely so as to preserve the safety of their critical staff. The tools are out there and some jurisdictions are extremely successful at this. Your planning meetings can be conducted over web conferencing, even press conferences can be as we are seeing in California. Email and phone allow you to ask questions of other sections. Virtual environments like slack that are conducive to group chats and discussion threads are extremely useful to engage several people working on the same problems. I think many of us have drastically underutilized WebEOC, VEOCI, and other EOC management software. It hasn’t been trained and integrated enough into our operation to be able to function at its full capability. I think this is a huge lesson learned from COVID-19. The ability to work remotely is crucial, and it is possible, we just need to practice and equip our responders to be able to do it comfortably. Pandemics aren’t the only disasters this can be good for, if roads are damaged in a major earthquake but communications are still up it might be a lot easier to get your EOC up and running virtually for the first operational period. This is the major way that I think this disaster will change the field.
Now that every jurisdiction has been involved in such a major disaster response, all of our elected leaders are getting a crash course in disaster management. Whether they were engaged with EM before or not, they now undoubtedly have had to function in a crisis environment. More proclamations means that every city council and board of supervisors out there has had to draft and approve a resolution pertaining to an emergency. I bet it was the first time many of them had done it in decades. Mayors, governors, and even our President are giving press conferences on this disaster daily and having to learn good risk communication. They are learning a lot about continuity of government and just what services are essential. They are having to make some pretty big decisions that impact their constituents in huge ways–shelter in place orders? Closing down local businesses? These are not things that are easy to do and certainly won’t please all the voters. But as emergency managers I think that this is a win for us because I don’t think we’re going to have trouble convincing our bosses in the future why emergency management is important. For the next several years this disaster will be fresh in everyone’s memories on a scale we’ve never seen before. We are used to seeing news of distant disasters and being entranced for a couple weeks, sending donations and creating hashtags #anyplacestrong. But now that our lives are truly disrupted in a major way for an extended period, politicians and previously detached coworkers are going to care about our field.
That brings me to my last point, more funding. I have it with a question mark because in the immediate future I think a pretty big recession is inevitable, so I don’t think there is going to be much money to go around. However, I can tell you one thing. Emergency management programs are certainly not going to be the first on the chopping block as they historically have been in some jurisdictions. Executives will remember the plan, the program, the person they had to turn to in this dark time for guidance and they will not cut that program. I think that the long term fiscal impact on EM funding is going to be positive after COVID-19. I think there will be more emergency management positions created and hopefully more young folks interested in filling them. For once, everyone is going to see our value because this will be an incident that is not soon forgotten.
I am sure there will be many more lessons learned in the weeks to come of this prolonged disaster. But these are the initial ways in which I think our field will never be the same.
Today we watch the outbreak known as COVID-19 continue to grow with ferocity, spurring emergency proclamations from more than half of the United States. The number of Emergency Operations Centers active in California softly escalates to what is likely an all-time high since my career in emergency management began. The scale of impacts the COVID-19 virus will have on our society remains to be seen, yet there are already some salient lessons that can be gleaned from this experience. These are my thoughts so far as my world is slowly consumed by the first pandemic of my emergency management career.
Social Distancing, Telework and Disproportionate Impacts
The Governor of the State of California announced late last
night a statewide ban on public gatherings and more and more agencies are
implementing telework policies that allow employees to work from home.
Universities throughout the nation are moving toward online classes and almost
all conferences are being canceled / postponed to a later date. Major music
festivals such as Coachella and major sports such as the NBA are being
suspended. The impacts of COVID-19 are widespread. I commend the decisions in
most of these cases to minimize the spread of disease, especially the move of
computer work to an online environment. I have always been a proponent of
telework, even in a blue skies environment, particularly after becoming a
mother. So many people work in industries that are almost entirely computer
based and don’t actually require in person interactions at all. So why do we
still get in our cars everyday and drive to an office, making traffic just a
little bit worse? I think that the widespread usage of telework in response to
COVID-19 may enlighten agencies that telework can be a feasible option that
actually increases productivity and boosts employee morale (and people will see
how much this helps traffic in urban areas!). Especially as a breastfeeding
mother, the ability to directly nurse throughout the day would actually
increase my working hours as pumping, washing bottles, and properly storing and
rationing breastmilk is significantly more time consuming than nursing.
Today, anyone who can definitely should try to complete
their work in a place of relative isolation. Those of us who are young and
relatively healthy may not see this as imperative, but if it slows the spread
of this disease that could be fatal to our elderly families and immune
comprised peers (including pregnant women!) then it is certainly worth it. I
believe we will find that many of the in person meetings we previously held may
have been a drain on resources and will be shorter and more efficient if
conducted in an online environment—either through video conferencing, phone
calls, or email exchanges.
However, the move toward online work will inevitably leave behind many hourly workers who typically earn lower wages than their salaried office counterparts. Even though the disease does not discriminate based on wealth and fame, as we have already seen with Tom Hanks, politicians, and NBA players being impacted, exposure will almost certainly be disproportionate. In line with so many other disasters, this outbreak will impact socially vulnerable groups, particularly low income populations who already struggle day to day. These are the folks who most often work in customer service roles at gas stations, grocery stores, as hotel maids, as servers in restaurants. Often they don’t have paid sick leave, and shifts may even be canceled due to event cancelations as many aren’t represented by unions to guarantee a set number of hours. These are the people we need to consider and support as a community to ensure that they feel financially secure enough to stay home if they are sick and feel able to care for family members who may be sick. I am fully supportive of extending government paid sick leave for these purposes. We need to think through how we can best protect these workers and how we can sustain these functions with as little human exposure as necessary. I think we need to be innovative now and rise to the challenge of public health to protect all citizens not just those privileged enough to be able to work from home.
Health is Precious
With my daughter starting day care recently and immediately being stricken with a tough cold that had her home for a week and the anxiety of a recent personal health scare, the subject of health was already at the forefront of my thoughts. But now that COVID-19 has so rampantly run through our society, we need to rethink health as a priority. Every day, healthy people take for granted their ability to breathe, to walk, to eat without pain or difficulty. But this status can change rapidly at any moment, especially with such a highly contagious disease that is now so prominent worldwide. This is another way that COVID-19 will have disproportionate impacts, in this case on those who are already challenged by underlying medical issues. We need to take actions to boost our health and our immune systems and to actively be thankful when are well. Far too many of us only think of and wish for health when we are already sick. Instead, I challenge you to be mindfully thankful for your health every day—take pride in heathy choices that you make, eat your veggies, go on that walk, do that yoga, drink that water, EmergenC and green tea! Wash your hands, stay home if you can and remember that if we can slow the spread of this disease we can diminish the immediate need for finite resources such as hospital beds and ventilators, giving older people and those with compromised immune systems the best chance to fight this illness.
Technology and the Culmination of Couch Culture
I just recently returned to work after a 7 month maternity leave, some of which I didn’t have a personal vehicle. I am well practiced at social isolation and one of the major factors that makes me feel empowered to stay home is technology. Particularly the plethora of readily available delivery services—I am a regular user of Amazon Prime, Uber Eats and Vons grocery delivery. All of these were not available with the speed and precision just 5 years ago and are still not as accessible in many rural parts of the country. These technologies are a very powerful weapon in the fight against COVID-19 and I think we should make ready use of them. There is no need to make a rush on Costco or Walmart when you can have the essentials brought to your door step. I am aware that there are humans involved in these logistical processes, but I guarantee there are far fewer total opportunities for exposure in the quick interaction of the exchange at the doorstep then there are if you went to a crowded store or restaurant and spent an hour there. As technology progresses, it’s possible to envision a future where we could utilize drones and other automated technologies such as autonomous vehicles rather than Ubers to further mitigate the spread of this biological threat. It goes without saying that the Internet, smart phones, and tools such as Zoom and Go To Meeting are huge technological enablers in the work from home revolution. I know that loss of some hourly jobs is inevitable as we lean more heavily on technology, but I believe there will be more opportunities for creative, strategic employment for the next generation who, like my infant daughter, are practically born with a knack for technology. And isn’t this the perfect culmination of the ‘couch culture’ that we have been cultivating for years?? This generation of 20 somethings goes out far less than prior generations, and who can blame them with so many movies, shows, tasty foods, and even alcohol available with a few swipes of the smart phone? We have already been training for social isolation, now it’s game day.
These are my immediate musings on COVID-19, as I enter a week long period as the Emergency Management Duty Officer for eleven counties in Southern California. In the first nine hours of my shift I have received ELEVEN proclamations of local emergencies for cities and counties in CA. Wish me luck as I attempt to stay on top of this dynamic situation, and feel free to share the thoughts this pandemic is triggering for you.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
Last week, California experienced the largest Public Safety Power Shut Off (PSPS) to date when Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E), its largest investor owned utility cut power to approximately 738,000 customers in 35 counties. One of which was Humboldt County, where I grew up and still have many friends and family members, which lost power for 24 hours with one day’s notice. Another was Tuolumne County, where my sister-in-law and her family live, where customers were plunged into darkness for nearly 4 days. While I have been dealing with the new reality of PSPS as an emergency manager for more than a year, most people are only learning of the protocol and its significance this month as a result of the massive outage.
I wanted to take the opportunity while there is public attention on this issue to write an opinion piece on PSPS and its ramifications. While I am currently employed by the California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services (CalOES), I want to be clear that what I’ve written here is my individual opinion and does not represent the opinion of my employer. However, I do want to commend Governor Newsom on his letter earlier this week to the California Public Utilities Commission and echo some of his sentiments that the scope and duration of this PSPS was unacceptable and executed with astounding neglect and lack of preparation on behalf of PG&E.
What is PSPS?
Public Safety Power Shut Offs, or ‘PSPS’ as they are affectionately called in our industry, are a new tactic employed by investor owned power companies in California to proactively shut off power in specific areas during times of high wildfire risk. While San Diego Gas & Electric (SDG&E) has been practicing this for years, Southern California Edison and Pacific Gas & Electric have just started implementing PSPS in the last couple years, due mainly to the fall out from recent devastating fires in Sonoma, Butte and Ventura Counties that were determined to be started by electrical equipment. This allows the companies to play it safe when weather conditions are primed for wildfires and avoid potential future liability that could be incurred through wildfires caused by electrical equipment. They closely monitor the impending weather conditions utilizing their own staff meteorologists, then send field staff out to the most fire prone locations as the weather event commences. When localized weather equipment and field staff concur that dangerous conditions exist, they proactively shut off power to select circuits in vulnerable areas.
People generally aren’t too happy about this new protocol—it
means that perfectly good groceries will rot in refrigerators and cranky Californians
will fumble with flashlights in sweltering homes on the state’s hottest days.
For what reason? Will this really stop wildfires from starting? Great
questions, I’ll attempt to address this below. It’s important to note that
although many people are seeing ‘CalOES mandated’ with some of the
notifications on the power outage, CalOES does not mandate the power companies
to turn off power. CalOES mandates that if they are going to do this, that they
notify both customers and local governments in the affected areas in a timely
The highly publicized widespread planned outages allowed us a view into the current level of California’s preparedness, and it didn’t look good. In Humboldt County, gas station lines were extremely lengthy until they transitioned into being eerily empty as many stations ran out of gas. Grocery stores were swarmed with crowds until the shelves were cleared of water, canned goods, toilet paper and other essentials. Some stores offered steep discounts on perishable refrigerated and frozen foods that were likely to be destroyed in the extended outage. There was a general sense of mayhem as people went into a frenzy trying to prepare for a few days without power. This shows us that in general, people didn’t feel that what they had at home was adequate to comfortably survive even a few days. This is not a good sign for being prepared for the Big One. Fortunately, it’s a great time for emergency managers to capitalize on this by encouraging participation in the Great ShakeOut earthquake drill later this week.
The upside to this is that people were forced to give disaster—or
living in this alternate universe without power—their thoughts and attention.
It is so common for people to push it out of their minds by saying they’ll
prepare next month or that disaster won’t happen in their lifetimes. When they knew
that the outage was impending, people considered their current commodities and
took action. While a full tank of a gas or stash of canned goods will be fleeting,
some of the items procured will have a lasting impact and will boost overall personal
preparedness. Perhaps people will be more likely to purchase generators to
mitigate the darkness of future outages. Thinking through the scenario and
discussing it with family members is also going to pay dividends toward the
creation of a family emergency plan, even if it’s conversational and focused
mainly on power outages. Hopefully it can start the train of thought toward
greater emergencies and what to do if gas or sewer systems are also not
working. Maybe in the future, people will recall the long gas station lines and
remember what a precious commodity fuel really is so they’ll keep their tanks
at least half full so that emergencies won’t limit their mobility.
The outages had a big impact on small businesses that did
not have generators. In Humboldt County most of these businesses were forced to
close and lose revenue for the duration of the outage. Gas stations closed such
as the Chevron in Eureka where my brother works and even the Safeway in Arcata
where my mom works as a result of their generator malfunctioning. Excess
product that needed refrigeration became waste and money was lost on these
products. While corporations like Safeway and Chevron will be just fine, a PSPS
event can wreak havoc on small businesses that are often teetering on the brink
of profitability in rural areas such as Humboldt or Tuolumne.
As with most disasters, populations with access and functional needs will be the hardest hit with PSPS. Lower income people who cannot afford to refill their freezers and refrigerators with food staples that they’ve been depending on were adversely impacted by this event. Hourly employees of shuttered businesses lost wages when they could no longer go into work. As a breastfeeding mother, I could be very impacted by an outage. I would be horrified to lose my supply of frozen milk that I have been building for months—it is literally priceless, produced by my own body for my infant and cannot be replaced.
Perhaps the most important consideration of all for PSPS, is those who need electricity for medical reasons. This includes those dependent on oxygen, dialysis or CPAP machines, motorized mobility equipment or insulin that needs to be refrigerated. A power shut off can be catastrophic for people with these needs. PG&E was outspoken on social media during last week’s outage that these patients need to develop their own emergency plans and be prepared. Is this an acceptable stance to take when lives are at stake because a power company wants to reduce their own liability?
Impact on Emergency Management
For local emergency management agencies, PSPS means more
planning calls and more Emergency Operations Center (EOC) activations in
anticipation of possible emergencies rather than in response to real
emergencies. While this can be great practice in activation protocols and
running through the process for smaller jurisdictions that don’t get much
action, it can also become a huge headache quickly. And it can present a level
of danger—if staff are already tired from being activated for a forced power
outage, does it make them more capable or less capable to respond swiftly and
competently when real disaster strikes? I know that at the Regional level, activations
for PSPS exhaust our resources quickly. CalOES deploys Emergency Services
Coordinators to any activated counties and also to utility EOC’s. If a real wildfire
emergency occurs and shifts need to be filled overnight and to staff our
Regional EOC, then we quickly begin to run out of personnel resources and must
rely on overtired staff who would’ve otherwise been refreshed and ready to go when
the real fire ignited. I can personally testify to this happening in November
2018 when the Camp and Hill / Woolsey fires began as we had been in PSPS mode
all week. Although I’m out on maternity leave, I have also heard that this was
the case last week with the October 2019 Saddle Ridge fire. These types of
activations will become more and more common, with Southern California Edison already
moving into a constant state of EOC activation for every weekend through
wildfire season in 2019.
The other drawback is that the capability of communicating important
emergency evacuation information with the public can be greatly diminished if
power is out. There are many ways for wildfires to ignite and cutting the power
simply won’t mitigate all fire start potential. So if a fire starts a different
way and begins to impact a community in the dark, how can emergency management
quickly notify them? Television media won’t reach them and cell phones may have
varying levels of battery power depending on outage duration and community
access to generators. Sending first responders door to door is a very resource intensive
option that can be slower than other methods. This presents a greater danger to
PG&E committed to opening one ‘Community Resource Center’ per county with a maximum of 100 people to provide device charging capabilities and controlled temperatures. While I appreciate the gesture, I find it almost laughable that these centers would even begin to meet needs. In many of the 35 impacted counties, it would be quite a drive for those most at risk in the more rural mountainous areas to the resource center in the more populous part of the county. In Humboldt County, the resource center opened hours after power had been restored for much of the county, with the exception of the distant rural areas. This quickly becomes a need that local emergency management becomes involved with by opening additional cooling centers or resource centers. These centers further stretch staff resources that would be needed as shelter workers if a wildfire hits.
As stewards of the whole community, local emergency managers
must also plan for the needs of the medically vulnerable populations previously
mentioned. Since many do not have the resources or knowledge to fully prepare
themselves as PG&E suggests, emergency managers try to fill this gap by working
with public health to identify and check on the well-being of these populations
during outages. As you can imagine, this can quickly become an information
management challenge and a losing battle as the number of people impacted increases.
Does it work?
In short, PSPS will never be able to stop all fires from
starting and it is impossible to prove success with this protocol because we
will never know if electrical equipment would’ve started a fire during the time
of the outage. From my observations, it has already not worked on November 8th,
2018 when the Woolsey Fire started from electrical equipment during a time that
Southern California Edison had actively been implementing PSPS protocols all
week. The Camp Fire also ignited that day and was started by electrical
equipment although I’m not sure if that area was being analyzed for PSPS that
day or not.
Even with the best analysis available, I believe that it is
impossible to know exactly where and when a fire will begin. Wind and weather
conditions can shift in an instant. We all know that weather predictions are
not all that accurate all the time (sorry NWS friends) and these predictions
are what PSPS is solely based around. I also do not believe that shutting off
power to massive areas as was conducted by PG&E last week is the solution. So
many of these areas never had any fire danger, including the one nearest and dearest
to my heart, coastal Humboldt County. My parents had wanted to run their heater
because it was actually chilly, cold and plenty humid, with overnight temperatures
down to the 40’s in their home a mile from the Pacific Ocean in October. But
they couldn’t because their power was off for fire danger. Putting so many
people in the dark who are nowhere near the danger zones seems to me to be more
of an attention-grabbing political ploy than an actual life safety necessity. I
believe that the leadership of California’s investor owned utilities hope that
these massive outages will create political pressure to legislate them out of
liability for future fires in exchange for keeping the power on.
As evidenced by last week’s outage, PG&E was not
prepared for the level of customer service and information needs that their planned
outage created. Humboldt County was not on the list of impacted counties until
the day before the power outage occurred. The notification process to
individual customers was subpar, with many complaints of never receiving the notification.
The company’s website crashed and customers were unable to gain information as
to whether the outage would impact them. Clearly, there is much work to be done
before the company claim to be prepared to undertake such a massive planned outage
How can we stop CA wildfires?
While shutting off power may stop electrical equipment
driven wildfires from starting, there are other measures that I think would could
be bring similar success without such adverse impacts on populations. For one, PG&E
should begin by focusing their efforts on updating their infrastructure to upgrade
transmission lines and increase grid segmentation so that if they choose to
continue with PSPS in the future they will have the capability to be much more
targeted. Such incredibly large swaths of land were impacted by last week’s
outage and this could have been avoided if they had the capability to segment
their grid to focus impacts the way that Southern California Edison and
Additionally, the impacts of PSPS could be mitigated by investments in microgrid technology. A microgrid is a localized group of electricity sources that typically operates connected to and synchronous with the traditional centralized grid but can disconnect and maintain operation autonomously. An excellent example of a success story for this type of innovation was revealed in Humboldt County last week when the Blue Lake Rancheria’s microgrid continued to function while the rest of the county went dark. The tribe has been a huge proponent of resiliency planning and has become a leader in tribal emergency management, even bringing FEMA’s emergency management advanced academy to Humboldt earlier this year! During the outage, the tribe’s gas station remained functioning and their facilities provided access to electricity and warmth for local families. The tribe also worked with the Humboldt County Department of Health and Human Services to house eight people who relied on electricity for medical needs in its casino—an outstanding example of an intergovernmental and quasi public-private partnership. In the darkness of PSPS, this mini success shines a light on potential future technology advances that could alleviate hardship.
Unfortunately, it will not be such an easy fix as shutting off power to decrease wildfire frequency. California experienced a prolonged drought from 2011 – 2015 that was the driest since record keeping began in 1885. The amount of dry vegetation in the state’s wildlands coupled with the devastating effects of bark beetles creates a massive amount of fuel that is ripe for burning. Additionally, the state continues to experience record breaking temperatures and an increase in the number of extremely hot days. When humidity dips and high winds commence, massive wildfires are born. While the Cedar Fire of 2003 was California’s largest wildfire for 14 years, the Thomas Fire (2017) only held that title for a mere 8 months before the Mendocino Complex fire overtook it. These disasters are increasing in intensity and frequency due to climate induced conditions. Examining the drivers of climate change and taking action to reduce anthropogenic impacts on the environment is one avenue of working to reduce wildfires.
Another is to reduce further development into the Wildland Urban Interface, the area where suburban developments encroach into traditionally wild environments. California has more people and homes located in the WUI than any other state in the continental US—close to 4.5 million homes and 11 million people. This creates a new type of ignition ready fuel for small brushfires to really take flight. While communities continue to expand outward into the hills and the state faces a housing affordability crisis, policymakers and community developers must consider the price that we will pay when wildfire strikes these areas and reconsider the decisions to continue to infringe on these wild spaces.
Until we are ready to truly address these greater issues, no
amount of PSPS will solve California’s wildfire crisis. Is it worth the death
of a medical patient dependent on electricity to possibly save the lives and
property of many from a wildfire that does not yet exist? While policy makers
must grapple with these decisions, California emergency managers must react to the
new normal in the wake of devastating climate change induced disasters and rise
to this challenge.