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Sonoma County supervisors look to improve emergency alert system

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After eight months of scrutiny over Sonoma County’s failure to issue more widespread warnings about last year’s firestorm, county officials said Tuesday they want to become a model for how to best alert community members of unfolding emergencies and prepare them to respond well in future disasters.

To accomplish that goal, a majority of the Board of Supervisors signed off on an internal audit of the county’s response to the October wildfires. The board also agreed to move forward with a restructuring of the emergency services division that begins with funding new jobs for people who will focus specifically on the development of a new community warning program.

Supervisor Susan Gorin cast the lone dissenting vote. She was frustrated the audit didn’t address what she described as inadequate communication from the county’s civilian emergency command center regarding the fires that ravaged the Sonoma Valley and other parts of her southeastern county district.

But some of Gorin’s colleagues on the board were eager to show their constituents they are making changes based on lessons learned during the disaster.

“Right now, we need to rebuild public trust,” said Supervisor Shirlee Zane. “That is really essential.”

Christopher Godley, the county’s interim emergency manager, told supervisors their current emergency alerting program is “essentially on par” with what other California counties have in place, but the public’s expectations have grown significantly along with technological advancements in recent years. Residents want to know “within minutes, if not seconds” about threats that could affect them, and they anticipate the government will provide extensive details about how and where the threat is evolving, Godley said. Sonoma County can serve a leadership role by developing a warning program that more closely matches public expectations for what information the government will provide in times of crisis, Godley said.

“There are 58 counties in the state of California, and 57 of them are watching us right now,” he said. “Because they need to understand: Has the game changed?”

Supervisors didn’t actually fund the staff positions for developing the new community warning program. That action is planned to occur when the county adopts its budget for the upcoming fiscal year, expected later this week.

But the board was broadly supportive of the review’s call for a new “first-class” warning program that will incorporate “clear policy, innovative technology, real-time situational awareness, and robust community engagement.” Supervisors plan to consider more overarching changes later down the road, including potentially moving responsibility for managing the warning program and overhauling the reporting structure for the entire emergency services division, shifting it from within the County Administrator’s Office to the Sheriff’s Office instead.

Santa Rosa resident Joe Perez, who lost his Fountaingrove home in the fires, urged supervisors to make more substantial “executive-level personnel action” because of the warning controversy. Perez, a retired county employee who was formerly a radio communications manger, didn’t elaborate at the meeting.

In a follow-up interview, however, Perez said he wants the board to “dismiss or take professional action against” County Administrator Sheryl Bratton, who was in charge of the county government’s emergency response.

Perez told supervisors he has been deeply concerned about the government’s official warnings — or lack thereof — since the firestorm began.

“I was outraged by the effective lack of public alerting that was occurring, even as the fires continued to rage,” Perez said. “We, the community, have been severely let down by local government on a scale that has never happened before in the history of our county.”

Supervisor James Gore, the board chairman, defended Bratton in an interview, saying he was sympathetic to Perez’s concerns but more interested in moving forward.

“The blame game of the past is done,” Gore said. “For every person, it’s about what they do going forward. Sheryl Bratton, the county administrator, has delivered exactly what we asked for since that time.”

The internal review also identified shortcomings in the county’s communications with Spanish speakers after the fires began, and several community members spoke to that issue in public comments Tuesday.

Herman Hernandez, chairman of the local Latino leadership group Los Cien, told the board the Spanish-speaking community was “ill-informed” about the fires and its needs “have been inadequately addressed.”

Tubbs fire survivor Daysi Carreno said in Spanish she wanted the county to do a better job providing translated material and news conferences in the future so the numerous local residents for whom English is not their primary language are better informed about what’s happening.

“We don’t want to be the last on the list,” Carreno said via English translation from a county lawyer. “We want to be equal as everybody else.”

Much of the internal review, which was divided into three reports, focused specifically on the functioning of the emergency operations center, a facility at the county’s north Santa Rosa government campus where county officials managed their wildfire response. That part of the review determined staff were poorly trained and overwhelmed during the fires, while elected leaders had no established communication channels with officials running the facility at first.

But Gorin, whose Oakmont home burned in October, was dismayed the review didn’t explore how the operations center responded to the Nuns fire and other blazes in her district. She said she and her staff struggled to get essential information, a problem she felt the audit should have been able to address.

“We were orphaned in the process,” Gorin said. “Every request for information that we sent to the EOC was met with absolute silence. We couldn’t get any information.”

Gorin later voted against accepting the after-action report because she thought it was “insufficient” and failed to “address the needs of the outlying areas” beyond the Tubbs fire zone.