Wednesday, November 21, 2018     Volume: 19, Issue: 37
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Santa Maria Sun / News

The following article was posted on November 7th, 2018, in the Santa Maria Sun - Volume 19, Issue 36 [ Submit a Story ]
The following articles were printed from Santa Maria Sun [santamariasun.com] - Volume 19, Issue 36

County officials say new warning systems will save lives

By Spencer Cole

As the one year anniversary of the Thomas Fire and Montecito mud flows approach, emergency responders and government officials are attempting to assure the public that they will receive proper warning if the worst is to occur. 

On Nov. 6, the Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors accepted a report from the county executive and Sheriff's offices about how its emergency alert system had been improved since the disasters scorched hundreds of thousands of acres and ultimately claimed at least two dozen lives.  

One of the biggest changes to the old alert system highlighted that day involved evacuation orders.

"As you might recall in the past, there was some different terminology used," Assistant County Executive Officer Terri Nisich said at the meeting. 

In past years, the county would issue one of two evacuation orders: mandatory and voluntary. The orders became a cause for confusion multiple times in the past calendar year, including in Montecito during the Jan. 9 debris flow event and again on the Fourth of July weekend in Goleta during the Holiday Fire. 

During both disasters, residents in the two communties–including more than 100 living in Goleta–said they failed to receive proper notice via text or phone. The Holiday Fire in particular was highlighted by Goleta homeowners, who pointed to poor cellphone reception in certain areas and argued some emergency warnings didn't go through. 

At multiple meetings after the disaster, Goleta citizens claimed Sheriff's Office deputies going door to door and making announcements on loudspeakers were the only reasons they got notice of the approaching flames.
Nisich said the process to give as many timely warnings as possible was ongoing. She pointed to the county's adopting the federal Wireless Emergency Alerts (WEA) system, which can reach most cellphones in a specific geographic area identified by emergency responders. The county also uses its own emergency response system it calls "Aware and Prepare."

Both alerts ping cellphone calls, texts, and landlines to send messages, but unlike WEA, the county requires people to sign up to receive alerts. This can be problematic in the future because, according to Nisich, there's still a large percentage of county residents who need to sign up. 

Nisich said emergency officials believed only about 12 percent of all county residents were signed up for Aware and Prepare.
Third District Supervisor Joan Hartmann called that number "frankly abysmal."
Undersheriff Sol Linver encouraged everyone in the county to sign up for the county's emergency system, even if the program was flawed.
"There are some limits to the alerting methods," he added. "No method is foolproof ... however, not signing up for Aware and Prepare limits citizens to four methods [of being alerted] as compared to seven."
Even so, help may be on the way to bridge the gap in the lack of sign-ups.
On Sept. 21, Gov. Jerry Brown signed SB 821. The bill, authored by Sen. Hannah-Beth Jackson (D-Santa Barbara), authorizes each county to enter into agreement with utilities to get account information for households specifically for the purpose of alerting them. Owners have the option to opt out, but emergency officials say they're hopeful it will help increase the Aware and Prepare system's reach.
"As we are introducing some of these improvements to you, we just wanted to make sure that you're aware we are consistently learning from our public, new academic studies [on evacuation behavior], and we will continue to improve our process as we move forward," Nisich said.

Second District Supervisor Janet Wolf noted the enormity of what proper emergency alerts mean in terms of saving lives.
"We don't know what the next emergency is going to be," she said. "We know what we've experienced, but we don't know what we haven't experienced and what may be coming."




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