Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Collaboration and Communication Save Lives California Wildfires

Two communications systems have improved southern California's preparedness for wildfires and other emergencies. The system made for a safer, more prompt evacuation from the 2007 wildfires, compared to the 2003 fires.

It's an excellent example of using technology to communicate with the public and to foster better collaboration and information-sharing among responding agencies:

[In October 2007] officials evacuated more than 500,000 people in an orderly manner and provided shelter for more than 20,000 evacuees.

Though as many as seven people died and 90 were injured due the 2007 fires, even more people would likely have been in peril if not for the two Reverse 911 telephone alert systems -- one server-based, one Web-based -- the addition of a Web Emergency Operations Center (WebEOC) system, and the collaboration of agencies.

"There's no doubt in anyone's mind that the Reverse 911 saved lives," said Ron Lane, emergency services director of San Diego County. "There's no way we would have been able to notify everyone, especially during the first night of the fires."

During Southern California's 2003 blazes...some residents never received a notice to evacuate. That's not surprising considering the methods used for evacuation, which consisted of law enforcement personnel knocking on doors and notifying residents from loudspeakers.

The hectic, uncoordinated response to the 2003 fires prompted San Diego County officials to invest in two mass-notification systems prior to the 2007 fires, and those are credited with saving lives last fall.

"We used the 2003 fires as a game plan and an opportunity to identify what things we needed to do," Lane continued. "The key to Reverse 911 is it's essentially an electronic knock on the door from the sheriff, instead of relying on sheriff's loudspeakers and going door to door to let people know as in 2003. We had many people die in their garages or in their escape routes in 2003. The fires just move so fast and there are only so many deputies, you can't be everywhere."
The system also improved information-sharing among responding agencies:
San Diego County officials also used a 2005 UASI grant for the $100,000 WebEOC system, which gives officials from 85 different agencies teleconference capabilities, and some added capacity and redundancy into its 800 MHz wireless system. That forged the collaboration that made evacuation and providing shelter an orderly process. "We had more than 300 people logged in at one time during the height of the fires," Lane said. "Everybody had situational awareness of what was going on, what areas were being evacuated, what every hospital's status was."

The Emergency Services Integrators (ESI) WebEOC system allowed officials to share data with other jurisdictions and agencies in real time, and access satellite images, mapping information and national weather trends.

Officials used WebEOC in tandem with the mass notification systems by letting everyone know what parts of the county were being evacuated at a certain time and where people were going. That allowed the Red Cross, animal control and other agencies to prepare and respond accordingly. It all worked remarkably well, Lane said.

"Compared to other exercises and other things I've been involved in, we had outstanding situational awareness this time -- far better than I would have ever thought," he said. "I never felt at any time that we didn't know what was going on in the field."
The good news is that, after such a successful experience, these agencies are likely to look for more ways they can share information and work together for other types of events.

Success breeds success.

No comments: