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Back to Archives | Back to April 2008 Contents 

Information Sharing during the San Diego Wildfires of 2007

By Pamela Scanlon, Chair, IACP Criminal Justice Information System Committee; and Executive Director, Automated Regional Justice Information System, San Diego, California


very year, as hurricane season winds down in the Atlantic, fire season begins in Southern California. Weather conditions bring high winds (the so-called Santa Ana winds) and higher temperatures that can spark a fire at any time—which is exactly what happened on October 21, 2007. The end results were the largest and most destructive fires in California history. Howling winds and extreme drought fueled these uncontrollable wildfires across Southern California in what has been called the “perfect firestorm of 2007.” The fires also resulted in the state’s biggest evacuation ever, with nearly one million displaced and over 300,000 acres and 600 square miles of land burned in the counties of San Diego and Los Angeles. At one point, at least a dozen fires were burning homes, hillsides, and anything else in their path from Santa Barbara to more than 200 miles south of the Mexican border.

At the disaster’s peak, 22 fires were burning simultaneously in the counties of San Bernardino, San Diego, Los Angeles, Orange, Santa Barbara, Riverside, and Ventura. San Diego County was hit hardest, with nine separate fires burning more than 370,000 acres (530 square miles) and more than half a million residents evacuated. More than 6,200 firefighters in San Diego County alone fought to control the wildfires that destroyed an estimated 1,600 homes, 800 outbuildings, 253 other structures, 239 vehicles, and 2 commercial properties. To date, the costs incurred to contain the fires are estimated at $41.3 million. The total projected damage costs are expected to exceed $1.5 billion in San Diego County alone.

The fires raced from mountain passes to the edges of the California coastline. At one point, several emergency personnel felt that the only thing that could stop the inferno was the Pacific Ocean. Fires spread so quickly that even hotels and schools that had set up temporary shelters had to be evacuated. Evacuations were announced in one community after another as firefighters were overwhelmed by the gale-force Santa Ana winds topping 70 miles an hour.

Public Information and Evacuation

During the disaster, San Diego County’s Joint Information Center (JIC), in coordination with the Operational Area Emergency Operations Center (OAEOC) and 2-1-1 San Diego, a nonprofit organization, provided critical emergency information directly to the public. The JIC successfully disseminated more than 200 press releases and collaborated with regional partners to conduct routine press conferences. Information was also distributed through the use of numerous media outlets, including the www.sdcountyemergency.com Web site, which received approximately 10 million visitors. In addition, 2-1-1 San Diego answered approximately 109,000 calls and assisted with rumor control activities. With more than 7,000 volunteers and a significant amount of donations, volunteer organizations—along with municipal, state, and federal agencies—operated 45 shelters throughout the county, including two megashelters: one at Qualcomm Stadium and the other at Del Mar Fairgrounds. In addition, approximately 400 animals were brought into three county animal shelters; more than 5,000 horses were rescued, relocated, temporarily housed, and returned to owners; and an additional 5,000 animals per day were fed and cared for at evacuated owners’ properties for up to five days after the disaster.

San Diego had learned from its experience with the Cedar Fire of 2003 and was much more prepared for these fires. Mutual aid went into effect immediately, and the region used the several technologies that were shared among the first responders. The 2003 fires taught city and county officials and response teams that they had to plan for the next time a fire would strike by incorporating better evacuation plans, organizing evacuation sites better, and improving efficiencies for supplies and services. They accomplished all of those objectives this time. It was incredible to see the cooperation of agencies and the organization of disaster response efforts during a time that could have turned so easily into complete mayhem. Over 300 agencies participated in some manner by responding to or supporting those who responded to the fires.

One of the largest evacuation centers was Qualcomm Stadium, home to the National Football League’s San Diego Chargers. For the thousands of people who called Qualcomm Stadium home the week of October 21, the California firestorm of 2007 will be an event not soon forgotten. The images of tens of thousands of people pouring into the venue, normally accustomed to hosting football games and concerts, are familiar to people across the United States. These citizens evacuated peacefully to Qualcomm and enjoyed gourmet buffets, massages, classes for children, music, hospital services, free use of computers with Internet access, and other benefits while waiting anxiously for news about their neighborhoods. Tents, cots, and blankets were spread out across stadium walkways and seats, while scoreboard television screens projected the latest fire news.

The evacuation site at Qualcomm Stadium was much like the firestorm itself—something that San Diego had never seen before. It tested the city’s ability to pull together resources and personnel; the national media attention prompted many people to call San Diego a model for how to handle a disaster. California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, who spent many days in San Diego surveying the fires and visiting the first responders, also visited Qualcomm Stadium and said, “The people are happy. They have everything here.” Preparations were so effective that volunteers, food, and other supplies had to be turned away.

“Overall communications on this incident worked because of [the fires of] four years ago,” said Chris Hinshaw, vice president of the California Public-Safety Radio Association (CPRA, the Southern California chapter of the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials) and manager of the San Diego County Sheriff’s Office (SDSO), Wireless Services Division. “The Cedar Fire of 2003 gave us the opportunity to identify and address the gaps in our communications system. The political will and financial ability were also addressed. As a result, fire communications on this incident were measurably better.”

Communications Preparations and Response

The San Diego County–Imperial County Regional Communications System (RCS) is an 800-MHz trunked, smart-zone system. It handles communications for 264 public safety agencies in both counties and is the daily operational system for some state and federal groups in the region. The system, originally implemented in 1998, underwent significant upgrades after the 2003 Cedar Fire to reach its current service level. The RCS was rated at 71 percent better in terms of overall radio response and availability than were communications during the 2003 fire siege. The system was able to provide greater situational awareness and logistical support for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CAL FIRE) and other state as well as federal and local agencies.

Although CAL FIRE was in command of the overall fire response, communications with the RCS were prearranged. “We know what we need to do to communicate between different groups,” said Hinshaw, who served as interoperability communications coordinator at the county’s emergency operations center (EOC) during the fires. In order to cope with the interoperability issues, Hinshaw and his team passed out 380 portable cache radios from the RCS cache and rented from Motorola to various law enforcement and fire agencies. Radios from the National Radio Cache in Boise, Idaho, were also available to supplement fire suppression resources at incident base camps. VHF channels were “lent” to CAL FIRE for use on specific fires, and a team was organized for radio reprogramming.

“We had sufficient talk paths [channels] to reduce ‘busys’ on common [communications] resources [on the 800-MHz system],” said Hinshaw. “With conventional channels, you hit a ceiling and that happens on every incident. But you manage that by managing the communications resources that you have. [For instance,] you [can] reuse tactical channels and make them short range within operational units for use on both sides of the fire.”

The RCS was also able to field-test its new 3C (Communications, Command, and Control) system. Although the system is not yet ready to be deployed throughout the region, several agencies, including the county’s EOC and CAL FIRE, were able to use the video conferencing feature to conduct briefings and video downlinking from aerial platforms able to receive information.

Reverse 911

After the 2003 Cedar Fire, both the City and County of San Diego began researching emergency notification systems. Both eventually selected the Reverse 911 system, with the SDSO implementing it first, in March 2006. The deciding factor in favor of the city also implementing Reverse 911 was the opportunity to create redundancy for the county system.

The Reverse 911 system uses a confidential and secure AT&T telephone number database. Each number in that database is linked to a physical address on a map, allowing agencies to grid affected areas and evacuation zones down to a specific street, if necessary. Well-trained PCC dispatch supervisors and SDSO technologists work on the procedures to designate the evacuation areas in the system and place the calls.

During the 2007 firestorm, evacuation requests were determined in blocks by CAL FIRE and the San Diego Fire Department (SDFD) and communicated back to the SDSO and the PCC to make the notifications. In total, the city made 103,167 evacuation calls, and the SDSO made 415,000 calls for evacuation, repopulation, or public health notices.

The county limited messages to 15 seconds, and the city messages ranged from 16 to 22 seconds. The number of calls that can be placed simultaneously is limited only by the number of available phone lines. Both the city and the SDSO systems have access to 96 in-house phone lines, and through Reverse 911’s mass calling software, users have access to many additional lines.

An additional 172,000 calls went out on the county’s newest system, AlertSanDiego. Controlled by the San Diego County Office of Emergency Services (OES), the AlertSanDiego system, from 21st Century Communications, is an Internet Protocol (IP)–based technology. According to Ron Lane, executive director of the OES, four or five people in each city within the county have the training and authority to use the system.

Lieutenant Phil Brust, public information officer for the SDSO, said, “We don’t want the citizens to rely [exclusively] on receiving a call from a mass notification system. Reverse 911 is a wonderful tool, but it’s just another tool in our arsenal to alert the citizens.”

The systems are designed to transmit a short prerecorded message a designated number of times. In this case, both Reverse 911 systems were programmed to call a number a second time if the first call was unanswered. It then marks the number as a failed call and keeps moving down the list. Reasons for failed calls include downed phone lines, power outages, residents either checking messages or not at home, and inaccuracies in the database.

Many residents complained that a neighbor received a phone call but they did not. As a result, the SDSO set up an e-mail address for residents who did not get a call to submit their information and is now individually checking numbers against the database.

Reaching cell phone–only and voice-over-IP (VoIP) customers was the biggest challenge. Despite a public awareness campaign conducted by the city in September, only 10,000 residents had registered online to receive calls from the city’s Reverse 911 system on their cell and nonstatic VoIP phones before the fires. The county offers a similar online registration for wireless and VoIP phones through AlertSanDiego, which was being tested when the fires ignited; the county system went live as a result. Residents also have the option to register an e-mail address to receive notices.

Another complaint about the system was that the messages went out only in English. The systems do allow officials to record and/or repeat a message in any language on the same recording, but officials opted not to record longer, bilingual messages to optimize the number of calls that could be made per hour. Also, according to official sources, the AT&T database provides only a number linked to an address; it does not provide preferred-language information, making single-language, non-English calls unfeasible.

Lane said, “The County is looking into the practicality of using multiple languages for immediate notification.”

New Information Outlets

In addition to the media coverage, the San Diego public had access to two information sources that did not exist during the Cedar Fire: 2-1-1 and the county Web site, www.sdcountyemergency.com.

2-1-1, a local nonprofit resource written into the county OES disaster plan, proved indispensable in providing residents with information about evacuations, repopulation, emergency shelters, and public health notices. Call specialists served 120,000 callers over the 10-day disaster period—an amount typically answered in a year, straining resources and creating long wait times.

The demand placed on 2-1-1 was unexpected. On an average Sunday, the center, which is set up to answer 36 lines, answers 400 calls and has 3 of 16 call specialists working. On October 21, 2007, the center received 6,000 calls but, due to limited resources, answered only 1,600. The call volume forced the organization immediately to install 100 additional lines and bring in 1,200 volunteers to take calls and help with other tasks.

The demand on 2-1-1’s Web site was also significant; Google and Qualcomm had to rebuild the site in response.

The county Web site offered current, accurate information to site visitors, including road and hospital closures, fire locations, and maps of the evacuation areas. According to Lane, “The magnitude of [the site traffic] was amazing. . . . Due to volume, we were down for a few hours while we switched servers [to] increase capacity.”

In the weeks after the firestorm, Lane pushed the cell phone issue across the United States and talked to public safety officials about the problems experienced in San Diego.

“Registration is never going to be complete,” said Lane. “We were told that Arlington County, Virginia, which has had a cell phone registration effort for a few years, still has less than 30 percent [of the county population] registered.” He said that a new technology called cell broadcasting is a potential solution. Designed for next-generation cell phones, it would be able to send messages to every cell phone in range of a specific cell tower. Congress and the FCC are reviewing the technology.

“The fact is that fewer people are relying on landlines,” says Lane. “Even if we could get the [cell phone] numbers, cell towers aren’t designed to make that many calls at once; they are not an emergency management tool.”

The Community Comes Together

All in all, the firestorm really tested all aspects of the San Diego responder community, from mutual aid and communications to training, technology, and information sharing, and finally to courage and dedication on the part of the first responders. “I am just so proud of my firefighters,” said SDFD Chief Tracy Jarman. “I know I put them in harm’s way. I know they made incredible rescues. About 36 hours into the incident, I thought I’d lost citizens, and it’s the direct result of my firefighters’ efforts that we didn’t.” ■

Note: This article was adapted by the author for the Police Chief from an article originally published in Public Safety Communications, the official publication of the Association of Public-Safety Communication Officials.

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From The Police Chief, vol. LXXV, no. 4, April 2008. Copyright held by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, 515 North Washington Street, Alexandria, VA 22314 USA.








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