Holiday fire emergency information could have been quicker

Supervisor Wolf leads call for faster process

Emergency information releases could be faster according to a Santa Barbara County supervisor. (photo: John Palminteri

SANTA BARBARA COUNTY, Calif. - One Santa Barbara County Supervisor says emergency public information on the recent Holiday fire in Goleta could have come out quicker.

Janet Wolf spoke about the mixed messages she had during the initial minutes of the fire that burned 13 homes, 103 acres, vehicles  and numerous ranch buildings.
The first Santa Barbara County notification from the Sheriff's department was at 9:14 p.m.
The fire was originally spotted and called in to the California Highway Patrol emergency line about 8:40 p.m.
Sheriff's units along with multiple Santa Barbara County Fire engines were nearby and raced into a canyon that was rolling with flames and boiling up with smoke.
Temperatures were up to 101 degrees and winds were blasting from the ridge line down with some gusts clocked in excess of 40 miles per hour.
Many social media and other posts were coming out.  Wolf says however,  "I think there were some missteps our county staff has admitted to."

The timeline was confusing and likely because of the different ways message are coming out these days.    There are government releases, media reports, citizen journalist, public postings and rumors.

"It wasn't just the 9:14 pm alert we had. (There were) earlier alerts and there were some inconsistencies," said Wolf.
Sheriff' Bill Brown tried to set the record straight from his dispatch center "Supervisor Wolf, I don't know what you received before 9:14 pm but to my knowledge there was no official alert that went out from Santa Barbara County dispatch center prior to that."
He said deputies and the command staff have to identify the situation, evaluate the safety plan and get the information out either in an urgent release or text message or through systems such as those that call residents in a designated zone.

NewsChannel 3 looked at information coming out as the fire was first spotted deep in the canyon of North Fairview.  The Highway Patrol dispatch shows a fire call at 8:44 pm.

 There was a County fire tweet at 9 p.m. about a fire with multiple structures threatened and mandatory evacuations.

 But  one from KEYT and KCOY's Jason Stiff before 9 p.m. is something the county leaders have noted as one of the timeliest posts. It had  information about the fire, a map and boundaries where the evacuations had been called for .  It also said that 100 structures were threatened.

"In fact KEYT prior to 9:14 pm issued something on their Facebook,  about the evacuation,"  said Wolf.  A few minutes later in the discussion, Supervisor Das Williams said,  "If KEYT got something out faster than our emergency personnel got out alerts,  something is not happening fast enough."

 Sheriff Brown says there are improvements being made including better remote messaging by staff members from home.  He said many messages were sent out to different services to alert the public but one was not working without a special code from a remote location. The employee making the attempt, however was shut out.  "He did not have the codes available with him at his disposal," said Brown.  
That was upsetting to Wolf.   "This type of problem of someone  not knowing the code or any kind of delay in my mind is unacceptable."
The county had some problems with alerts during the Thomas fire in December as well, and the Office of Emergency Services Director Rob Lewin said he and his staff were working on the issues constantly.
He also pointed out the conflicts he faces.  Some residents are not signed up for emergency messages, some are getting what they feel is too much information and  some say they aren't getting enough.  Then there are residents outside of the immediate evaluation zone who feel like they should be included and get a warning call.  
The response changes at times when the incident grows or shrinks.  Law enforcement was in the area on a public address system urges residents to get their kids and pets and get out.   There was no time to pack much more.
The county is going to take a look at the postings to see if there can be a quicker way to get messages out either on the web site, or through social media. 
At the emergency operations center KEYT is often on the TV screens which helps authorities verify with an image something they may have been told by a citizen or weather report.
The board did not address other issues beyond social media and live TV coverage.
There were no questions about radio coverage and staffing at the time of the disaster. Several stations on the dial at that hour on a Friday night are automated and do not broadcast live breaking news.
For residents without a TV, radio is their main media source.
KCLU (NPR) News Director Lance Orozco, hearing of the urgent fire crisis in the area, drove up from out of the Central Coast where he was to provide spot news.   He was able to respond with the latest facts, and have on the scene coverage through Saturday.

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