When Evacuation Orders Go Wrong

Behind the 2:19 a.m. Alert That Freaked Out Santa Barbara County During the Thomas Fire

Luis Sass had already evacuated his Casitas Pass home but came back for the Christmas presents Monday morning.
Paul Wellman

As the Thomas Fire exploded in size and emergency crews clocked long hours, the biggest among a handful of electronically delivered evacuation mistakes and corrections occurred at 2:19 a.m., Sunday, December 10, as residents countywide were awakened by buzzing cell phones: “Civil Emergency … Evacuate Now,” issued by the county’s Office of Emergency Management (OEM).

“It was our fault on that,” said OEM Director Robert Lewin. “It’s a complicated [alert] system. One of the boxes was inappropriately clicked, despite our training and having our very best person sitting right next to me performing it.”

Twenty-nine minutes later, a follow-up alert clarified that the evacuation order was only for the area north of the City of Carpinteria. The system, called Wireless Emergency Alerts (WEA, pronounced “wee-uh”), has been part of the county’s emergency services for about 18 months, said Lewin, and it was first put to use ​— ​successfully, he added ​— ​during storms and subsequent flooding last winter.

Santa Barbara County Fire Department Battalion Chief Matt Farris (left) at a Thomas Fire press conference at Carpinteria High School (Dec. 7, 2017)
Paul Wellman

“We’re leaders on this system,” Lewin said, “but it’s extremely complex, and it needs some refinements.” For example, he explained, WEA is unable to deliver an evacuation order with surgical precision, and it’s limited to 90 characters and doesn’t have a map feature. “We are hoping to partner with federal and state government for a system that’s easier to use.”

Coincidentally, State Senator Hannah-Beth Jackson, who chairs the Joint Legislative Committee on Emergency Management, wrapped up a meeting on the effectiveness of California’s public warning systems just 90 minutes before the start of the Thomas Fire on December 4. She said WEA “needs to be more precise ​— ​as targeted as possible,” adding that it’s important to keep in mind that emergency personnel are working long hours and making stressful decisions. “This has been a fast-moving, extremely powerful, and dangerous fire,” she said. “Evacuation decisions have to be made quickly, and alerting people early is critical to saving lives. The system has worked better than it hasn’t worked. We will fully vet it when this fire is over.”

Residents who have signed up for OEM’s Aware & Prepare emergency notification system (awareandprepare.org) have also noticed that a handful of mandatory evacuation orders have been corrected to voluntary a short time later. While corrected evacuation information has the potential to create confusion and congestion on roads closest to the fire, Montecito Fire Protection District Communications Coordinator Jackie Jenkins said crews haven’t been experiencing such disruptions.

“We’re trying to get absolutely accurate information out there and we’re dealing with multiple agencies,” Lewin said about Aware & Prepare. “Mistakes have been made, and we try to correct them as fast as possible.”

Thomas Fire press conference at Carpinteria High School (Dec. 7, 2017)
Paul Wellman


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