Much of what is contained in a San Mateo County civil grand jury report that was released on Tuesday is sobering. It is not, however, surprising to those paying attention to the fragile nature of emergency preparedness on the coast. In fact, first responders have been screaming the warnings for years.
“In the event of a large wildfire,” the San Mateo-Santa Cruz Unit of CalFire wrote in its Community Wildfire Protection Plan of 2010, “we know there are not enough emergency responders and equipment to protect each and every home. … Often, there are more homes to protect than there are firefighters to respond.”
Add to that certain undeniable truths in this era of climate change. We are facing hotter, drier conditions in the future. We haven’t adequately managed vegetation that firefighters know as “fuel load.” More and more of us are living in the interface between wildlands and suburban areas. If all of that wasn’t scary enough a decade ago, it should ring urgent alarm bells across the state in the wake of devastating wildfires of more recent years.
While not exactly uncovering a new concern, the grand jury’s focus on emergency notification is most welcome.
San Mateo County has created a web of technology that, hopefully, will catch most people in a vulnerable location at the most urgent time. It uses wireless emergency alerts to target geographic areas (think Amber Alerts) and a reverse 911 system that was shockingly ineffective in one test of every landline north of Highway 92, when it took hours to generate all the calls and often they went unanswered. There is also the opt-in system known as SMC Alert, which can tip residents to a broad array of threats, from traffic issues to wildfire. But only 11 percent of county residents are enrolled, according to the grand jury, and the numbers are far worse in some communities. Most troubling, the text alert system still does not routinely deliver messages in Spanish when necessary.
“In short, the grand jury found that all countywide electronic notifications systems have limitations,” the report states, noting that some of those systems rely on cell towers and other equipment that could itself go up in smoke in a wildfire.
The grand jury makes seven recommendations after outlining the limitations of technology. They include using utility contact information in order to distribute printed evacuation maps and other mostly low-tech ways of providing proactive emergency information.
The report comes amid a flurry of recent reminders that we all must take some responsibility for our own safety, and that our ability to harness the terrible power of nature is itself limited. And, in the wake of last week’s earthquakes in Southern California, we were reminded once again that emergency response is not an exact science and that information is as important as fire hoses and ambulances when emergency strikes.