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Sonoma County to overhaul emergency management program following wildfires

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After months of harsh criticism for Sonoma County’s response to October’s firestorm, the Board of Supervisors on Tuesday approved a slate of changes designed to improve the county’s ability to handle future disasters.

The emergency services division — broadly denounced for its failure to issue widespread alerts as the Tubbs fire raced toward Santa Rosa — will be reorganized into an independent department with its own leader. The change will boost training, communication with elected officials and response before and during disasters, said Interim Emergency Manager Chris Godley, who described it as “one of the most ambitious reorganizations” of such a department in the state in at least two decades.

“It’s a subtle bureaucratic shift, a slight adjustment in polices, but it’s a significant move relative to what we see in other organizations,” Godley said. “I believe that, combined with the board’s action in June to better resource the program with staff and funding, you’ve got a good chance at making this a premier emergency management program, if not in Northern California, in the entire state as well.”

County officials have acknowledged widespread failures during the fires, which broke out late the night of Oct. 8, burned nearly 5,300 homes and killed 24 people in Sonoma County. Reporting by The Press Democrat revealed many fire survivors received no warning about the rapidly approaching flames following a 2016 decision by the county to rule out the use of cellphone alerts during a disaster.

North county supervisor James Gore told The Press Democrat’s editorial board the lack of an Amber Alert-style advisory put people’s lives at risk, and a June report indicated that government employees were under-trained and overwhelmed during the fires.

Supervisors in June voted to approve $1.2 million to bolster the county’s alerts and the emergency services department, adding five new staff. That included funding for a director, two jobs related to alerts and warnings, an emergency services coordinator and a community preparedness staffer.

The board is expected to formally adopt the job classifications Aug. 28, and recruitment for a director will begin by Sept.1, Godley said. The positions, for which salary scales have not yet been set, are expected to be filled by year’s end, Godley said.

In total, supervisors have allocated about $2 million in funding for the new Department of Emergency Management, which will have nine employees when it’s formally established later this year, Godley said. The county currently houses most of its emergency management functions in the soon-to-be-dissolved Fire and Emergency Services Department.

The changes will give the new manager more authority to manage staff and resources and help prepare the county for a range of disasters, from fires to pandemics, Godley said.

The new director of emergency services will report to the county administrator, who oversaw the emergency operations center during the fires.

Supervisor David Rabbitt praised the changes, saying they better position the county to respond to catastrophes.

“The direction going forward, I’m very comfortable with. It is a radical change for us. I think it will produce a much better outcome long term, and I think we can utilize those additional staff and resources we put forward and build up the capacity of the county and to help our partners,” he said.

The changes were approved by a 4-0 vote, with Supervisor Shirlee Zane absent.

While some other California counties have emergency services divisions within law enforcement agencies, Godley said working with the county administrator rather than the Sheriff’s Office will increase critical interactions with other county departments and vital stakeholders.

Staff will also work to develop a team that could include two supervisors who will advise the new department director on policy, resource and government relations issues during a major disaster. A liaison will also be installed during disasters to act as a contact for supervisors, who struggled to communicate with staff and the public and expressed frustration about an inability to access up-to-date information during October’s fires.

“This has been a long time coming and I appreciate the responses going forward,” Supervisor Susan Gorin said of the changes.

The community alert and warning program, a component of emergency services, could potentially be moved under the umbrella of a law enforcement division, Godley said. Those discussions will unfold in coming months.

Meanwhile, on Sept. 11 and 12, the county will for the first time conduct a countywide test of its emergency alert system, sending out notifications to all residents enrolled in SoCo Alerts. It will also push out Amber Alert-style notifications to as many as 20,000 residents in five yet-to-be-determined jurisdictions, conducting follow-up surveys to gauge the effectiveness of alerts, Godley said.

Godley said staff are working to get a quote from a vendor for a mobile-friendly website that will host real-time information about disasters in English and Spanish, maps showing where alerts are targeted and provide live updates. He hopes to have the website established by the Sept. 11 test, when a URL will be sent out with emergency notifications. Initial costs for the site could be about $150,000, he said.

“The public will have a place to go to not only to get more information about the initial warning but also to get updates in those first few minutes and hours,” Godley said. “We want to engage really quickly, because that’s how people work today.”

County departments also seek to update plans for maintaining critical services during a major emergency or disaster. Staff will work with stakeholders to explore the possibility of revising the mission, scope of work and membership of the Sonoma County/Operational Area Emergency Council.

The body is primarily composed of government representatives who review the operational area emergency plan, develop mutual aid agreements and approve Homeland Security grant distribution, but it could be changed to allow more community engagement.

Reports will be back for supervisors by December, Godley said.

You can reach Hannah Beausang at 707-521-5214 or hannah.beausang@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @hannahbeausang.