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State Legislators Talk About Improvements in Emergency Alert Systems at Carpinteria Meeting

Recent legislation and changes to Santa Barbara County protocols will affect the way emergency messaging is done locally and throughout the state

Assemblywoman Monique Limón speaking Click to view larger
State legislators including Assemblywoman Monique Limón, D-Santa Barbara, meet in Carpinteria Tuesday to discuss emergency alert systems.  (Brooke Holland / Noozhawk photo)

Emergency managers and elected officials gathered Tuesday in Carpinteria to talk about the vital need for a more reliable, effective network of public warning systems across California. 

“We are here to work to protect our people, our property, (and) our communities by focusing on this issue of public warning systems,” said State Sen. Hannah-Beth Jackson, D-Santa Barbara. 

​The gathering covered lessons learned from the recent fires, legislation going into effect in 2019, and improvements to emergency notification systems. 
Jackson, chair of the Joint Legislative Committee on Emergency Management, and Assemblywoman Monique Limón, D-Santa Barbara, and Assemblyman Marc Levine, D-San Rafael, co-chairs of the Assembly Select Committee on Natural Disaster Response, Recovery and Rebuilding, headed the nearly four-hour meeting at Carpinteria City Hall, which was attended by a standing-room-only crowd.
State Sen. Henry Stern, D-Canoga Park, also participated.

Emergency warning systems across the country range from door-to-door announcements to robo-calls to phones, and direct email and text messages. 

California does not have a standardized statewide emergency warning system, and local governments decide what systems to use, according to a staff report from the Assembly Select Committee on Natural Disaster Response, Recovery and Rebuilding.

Regional systems have been scrutinized during recent disasters, including the Thomas Fire and Montecito debris flows in Santa Barbara County; the Tubbs Fire and other blazes that burned portions of Napa, Sonoma and Lake counties; and the recent Camp Fire in Butte County. 

State-level legislation has attempted to improve alert systems, and three new laws were enacted this year, said Mitch Medigovich, deputy director of Logistics Management at the Governor's Office of Emergency Services.

Senate Bill 821, authored by Jackson, gives counties the option to automatically enroll residents in their location-based telephone emergency programs, using utility company customer information. 

Only 12 percent of Santa Barbara County residents have signed up for Aware & Prepare emergency alerts.

Senate Bill 833 from State Sen. Mike McGuire, D-Healdsburg, requires the Governor’s Office of Emergency Services to develop voluntary guidelines for alerting and warning the public of an emergency, to disseminate the guideline to all cities and counties in the state, and to develop training programs for local officials on the use of alerting equipment and software. 

AB 1877, introduced by Limón, requires the Governor’s Office of Emergency Services to create a library of translated emergency notifications and a translation style guide that emergency officials must consider when issuing alerts to the public, to improve notifications in languages other than English. 

“The recent Senate and Assembly bills, and statewide alert and warning guidelines currently under development are big steps in the right direction, but more needs to be done,” said Brian Uhl, an emergency manager with the Santa Barbara County Office of Emergency Management.

Local officials have changed their alerting protocols, and increased training for dispatchers and other responders, in the year since the Thomas Fire and Jan. 9 Montecito debris flows.

In order to be successful at emergency notifications and implementing change, Uhl said, local governments need a simple procedure that takes as much of the guesswork out of the alerting process as possible. 

It should also leave enough flexibility so each jurisdiction can develop procedures that work based on demographics, operational needs, budgets and staffing levels, he told the panel of elected officials Tuesday. 

state legislators Click to view larger
State Sen. Hannah-Beth Jackson, left, alongside Assemblyman Marc Levine and Assemblywoman Monique Limón hear about Santa Barbara County emergency alert methods Tuesday.  (Brooke Holland / Noozhawk photo)

“As we have seen over the course of several recent disasters in our state, being able to deliver coordinated, prompt, reliable and actionable emergency information to the community is critically important to keeping them safe,” Uhl said. “The county has been faced with several disasters, and my office has sent out hundreds of alerts and warnings.”

Santa Barbara County uses a variety of messaging methods, and has a tiered chart to help officials match the severity of a threat with a set of alerting tools, he said. 

“The higher the urgency or more severe the threat, the more alerting tools we use to notify the public,” Uhl said. “This speeds up the decision-making process significantly, and adds an element of consistency to an otherwise erratic process.”

County emergency officials developed fill-in-the-blank message templates in English and Spanish to dispense information quickly. 

“This simple model has been used during several recent real-world incidents and is proven to be flexible, scalable and effective,” Uhl said.

Uhl said a difficult aspect of the notification process is crafting messages that can be understood by a diverse population and “can override an individual’s internal decision-making process and trigger them to make swift and appropriate action to stay safe.”

He said state officials can help local governments by understanding the obstacles of emergency alerting, and helping the public understand the process. 

“We need to make clear what’s possible, and what’s not,” Uhl said. “The public's perception is that as soon as an incident breaks…that all emergency officials have to do is press a single button and ‘voila,’ an alert containing complete and accurate information is sent out instantaneously — this is the perception.”

Emergency incidents can happen suddenly, leaving officials without enough time to send an alert, and there is always the possibility for technical failures and human error, he noted.

There’s also concerns with over-alerting and causing “unnecessary panic,” Uhl said.

chart Click to view larger
Santa Barbara County officials say 12 percent of residents are signed up for Aware & Prepare emergency alerts, which include text, email and robo-call messages.  (Santa Barbara County photo)

Click here to sign up for Santa Barbara County's Aware & Prepare emergency alerts.

Click here for a list of resources, including how to sign up for alerts and where to find city-specific emergency information.   

The revised debris flow risk maps for recent burn areas from the Thomas Fire and Whittier Fire are available on the county’s emergency website, ReadySBC.org, in addition to winter storm preparedness materials.

Noozhawk staff writer Brooke Holland can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

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