Few words were minced Tuesday morning in Carpinteria as State Senator Hannah-Beth Jackson opened an informational hearing of the Joint Legislative Committee on Emergency Management and the Assembly Select Committee on Natural Disaster Response, Recovery, and Rebuilding.
“Frankly, it’s really tragic that we’re here today discussing raging wildfires that have become the new abnormal in our state,” said Jackson, who chairs the state’s Emergency Management committee. “These fires have snuffed out the lives of over 150 Californians in the past year alone, destroyed homes and property [and the] hopes and dreams of thousands. Even after an indisputable scientific study released just this past week, national leaders continue to foolishly deny the challenging conditions of our planet, recklessly and irresponsibly blaming those they do not like for something that is obviously occurring as a result of human behavior.”
Focused on evolving systems of public notification before and during disasters, the hearing gathered testimony from emergency management personnel from across the state, including Thom Porter, chief of strategic planning of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, aka Cal Fire. “The climate is changing, and we are watching that in real time,” said Porter, explaining that wildfire characteristics once unique to Southern California — low-humidity, drought-enhanced, wind-driven events that move miles in hours — are becoming more common in Northern California, as well. With that stage set, he said, “We need an informed public so we can keep everybody safe.” Added Kim Zagaris, the fire and rescue chief with the Governor’s Office of Emergency Services (OES), “We need a communication system that is resilient and reliable.”
In part, Zagaris was referring to privately operated cellular phone systems, as many residents statewide are abandoning home landlines. Cell phones are “critical communication avenues” when emergency managers send out evacuation notices, for example, but “it’s a weak point,” said Mitch Medigovich, deputy director of logistics management in the Governor’s OES. He said his office is working with cell-phone companies in an attempt to improve, or “harden,” their infrastructure against potential failure during disasters because, at the moment, “it’s not public-safety grade.” Getting equipment to that level would require backup power generators and ongoing brush and tree clearance surrounding cell towers, among other upgrades.
The hearing also covered updates on Jackson’s recently signed Senate Bill 821, which helps public agencies enroll citizens to automatically receive emergency notices (while also allowing the enrolled to opt-out). Also present was Assemblymember Monique Limón, whose Assembly Bill 1877 aims to improve translation services as notifications are sent out. “Secondary alerts for non-English speakers is unacceptable,” said Liliana Encinas, a public education specialist with the Santa Barbara City Fire Department. To make sure notifications are precise, Encinas called for agencies to invest in deeply fluent translators. “In emergency situations, people will revert to their native language,” she said.
Many of the panelists, including Rob Lewin, Santa Barbara County’s emergency management director, reiterated the need for more funding to better staff and train employees tasked with compiling and sending out notices, and doing so with the very best technology available. In closing, Lewin said that once every county in the state has the appropriate software, staffing, and training, a complex series of steps still needs to play out for an alert to be successful. First, incident commanders need to be quickly informed of what’s happening. Then, they need to craft a clear message to dispatchers, who in turn must distribute it accurately through dependable technology. And finally, the alert must reach a citizenry “prepared and willing to take action, such as to evacuate.”
The hearing was the third in an ongoing series. For related documents and to view video archives of the hearings in their entirety, visit emergencymanagement.senate.ca.gov.