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.