County Administrator's Office

State Audit Response: Care for vulnerable residents in an emergency

Published:  December 5, 2019

Members of our community and partners:

Today, the State Auditor’s Office released a report evaluating our evacuation of residents with Access and Functional Needs during the 2017 fires, along with two other counties who suffered major disasters.

We know you may hear about this and want to share a few thoughts and facts with you:

In 2017, the unprecedented size and speed of the Sonoma Complex fires shook us, our community, and the world. Since that time, we’ve taken a hard look at the kind of emergency preparedness, services and response our community needs, and we’ve taken action to improve. We know this comes as no surprise to you because emergency preparedness isn’t something we’ve been doing on our own – you’ve been with us every step of the way. We appreciate you for it.  

You’ve helped us with our alert testing by submitting survey results that help us better understand federal systems; you’ve participated in evacuation drills; you came out to Sonoma Ready Day; and when the Kincade fire came, you knew what to do when we issued evacuation orders.

Because of the work we’ve done together, we successfully completed the largest evacuation in Northern California history, in response to Sonoma County’s largest fire, with no civilian injuries. We planned to improve our care for residents with Access and Functional needs. As a result, before fire season, we reached out to over 6,000 In-Home Supportive Service (IHSS) clients to develop individualized preparedness plans. During the fire, social workers contacted clients who identified as Critical, Urgent and Moderate need, and provided support and connected those without vehicles to transportation.

We want you to know that we welcome any help from the state that makes our community safer and more prepared, and we are thoroughly reviewing the report for any helpful information, and are planning to implement the recommendations. However, we believe the report fell short by focusing solely on the 2017 fires, while overlooking our community’s progress since the 2017 fires. The audit does not take into account our response to the Kincade fire. Instead of focusing on our current disaster response capabilities and preparedness activities, the audit focuses on the past.

Since the 2017 fires we have been honoring the past by working towards the future, but rest assured, we won’t stop there. We know that preparedness is a continuous effort; we can only be #SonomaStrong if we are #SonomaReady.

Here are some additional facts that we included in our response to the audit, You can view the audit here.

While identifying and overcoming limitations in alert and warning systems has been a major area of focus, other important improvements have been implemented since the October 2017 Sonoma Complex Fires to its emergency planning, preparedness and response efforts. These actions include:

  • Established an innovative comprehensive Alert and Warning Program by:
    • Establishing a new Alert & Warning Program, including the use of the Wireless Emergency Alert (WEA) system.
    • Hiring two dedicated staff for managing the program and issuing warnings – the highest level per capita staffing in the state.
    • Maximizing system capabilities by expanding access and streamlining activation procedures.
    • Integrating and implementing concurrent Spanish messaging.
    • Conducting real-world warning systems exercises in 2018 & 2019 including the first use of WEA live warning codes in the western United States.
    • Expanding public outreach and education.
    • Expanded and trained additional staff as system activators.
    • Establishing a standing Alert & Warning Committee consisting of representatives from local government, public safety, and community groups countywide.
    • Implemented new systems: Hi/Lo sirens on Sheriff's patrol cars to assist with evacuations and the NOAA Weather Radio for issuing non-weather emergency alerts.
    • Contributed to State and Federal warning policies and guidance.
    • Increasing SoCoAlert subscribers by 200%.
       
  • Worked with local communities to identify hazards, risks, and mitigation strategies, including evacuation routes.
  • Developed a community evacuation planning and exercise program and conducted two full-scale community evacuation drills in partnership with local neighborhood groups.
  • Supported the development of over a dozen local Communities Organized to Prepare for Emergencies (COPE) groups that are meeting monthly to develop and enhance their individual and neighborhood disaster response capabilities.
  • Significantly expanded and enhanced the 2-1-1 System and emergency response capabilities.
  • Facilitated construction hardening techniques appropriate for wildfire urban interfaces and seismic retrofits for rebuilding and for existing homes through education and grant programs.
  • Worked with private utility providers on solutions related to hardening infrastructure and on coping with destroyed utilities in a disaster, including undergrounding where appropriate and necessary.
  • Helped property owners navigate vegetation management opportunities through partnerships with Fire Safe Sonoma and similar programs.
  • Continued to advocate for substantive changes to insurance regulations.
  • Implemented Community Awareness strategies, such as recent mailers on Watershed Protection and Defensible Space.
  • Developed an enhanced vegetation management program by:
    • Authorized $900,000 for the Expanded Fuels Reduction and Landscape Resiliency Campaign;
    • Provided $375,000-400,000 for proactive vegetation management inspections for Spring 2020 into Fall 2020;
    • Provided $80,000-100,000 to conduct abatement for non-compliance for Spring 2020 into Fall 2020;
    • Hired a Registered Professional Forester to support permitting and compliance requirements;
    • In conjunction with Fire Safe Sonoma, finalized projects, key deliverables and metrics based on the County's proposed investment for community education and engagement;
    • Held internal meetings with Sonoma County Departments and other agencies to develop & coordinate systems to ensure collaboration between departments regarding fuel projects;
    • Full program funding to be completed by end of January 2020; and
    • Inspected 2,739 parcels.
  • Implemented a dynamic-scaling website platform (SoCoEmergency.org) to provide emergency preparedness and real-time incident information to residents and visitors in both English and Spanish.
  • Partnered with the Sonoma County Water Agency and PG&E to install nine Fire Watch cameras throughout the County.
  • Allocated $1M over two years to support increased county-wide staffing by local fire agencies during periods of increased fire danger including all Red Flag Warnings.
  • Expanded a Staff Development program to better train County employees in disaster response.
  • Developed a comprehensive emergency response plan for Electrical System Shutoffs – the first in the state - and supported increased planning coordination for jurisdictions across the state.
  • Developed the following plans:
      • County Continuity of Operations Plan (COOP);
      • Human Resources: Learning Management System (LMS);
      • Staff Wellness Benefits for Disaster Preparedness;
      • Functional Assessment Support Teams (FAST);
      • Fairgrounds animal evacuation and supplies; and
      • County Board of Supervisor's Guide to Emergency Operations.
    • Applied for the following grants to enhance emergency planning, preparedness and response:
      • Hazard Mitigation Grant Program (HMGP).
      • Pre-Disaster Hazard Mitigation Grant Program (PDM).
      • Community Development Block Grant –Disaster Recovery (CDGB-DR) Unmet Needs.

    The list above is a sample of the accomplishments the County of Sonoma has achieved in improving its emergency response capabilities in the two years since the Sonoma Complex Fires. During the recent October 2019 Kincade Wildfire – the largest in the County's history – and the concurrent PG&E power shutoff to 260,000 residents, the County demonstrated significant capabilities including:

    • Successful use of multiple Alert & Warning systems to issue dozens of emergency warnings in both English and Spanish. This included the Wireless Emergency Alert (WEA) system (15 activations), Emergency Alerts System (EAS), SoCoAlert subscriber system (26 activations), law enforcement patrol car Hi/Lo sirens and Nixle as well as the NOAA Weather Radio system – the first such use for a non-weather emergency in the western United States.
    • The successful evacuation of over 190,000 residents – the largest single-county evacuation in recent Northern California history.
    • Established and supported nine shelters for over 3,400 individuals as well as pets and livestock.
    • Staff made provisions for contacting and preparing to evacuate hundreds of individuals without housing from areas threatened by the fire.
    • Staff supported evacuation and resident care of four care and shelter facilities as well as two major hospitals.
    • The real-time incident status map addressed both the fire and the PG&E power shutoff hazards and was viewed more than 9 million times.
    • All County communications for SoCoAlert, Wireless Emergency Alerts, EAS, SoCoEmergency.org, and social media were produced in English and Spanish, with Spanish translation provided by bilingual Sonoma County employees.
    • Prior to the power shutoffs and fire, the County Human Services Department worked with their 6,232 In-Home Supportive Service (IHSS) clients to develop individualized emergency plans.
      • During the emergencies, social workers contacted 2,748 clients, who are identified as Critical, Urgent and Moderate need.
      • Staff connected clients to resources like transportation and medical support.
    • Emergency information on SoCoEmergency.org was displayed side-by-side in Spanish and English.
        • Through the height of the emergency, SoCoEmergency.org was viewed 2 million times.Of those 2 million views, 80,500 views were of Spanish content. The views were generated by 519,000 unique users, 18,000 of which were Spanish speaking. By way of context, Sonoma County's population is 504,000.
      • During emergency response, the County shared bilingual information on Facebook, Twitter, and Nextdoor. Facebook was updated on average 1.2 times per hour, and had 315,000 engagements, while Twitter was updated 1.4 times per hour and saw 2 million impressions.
      • 2-1-1 provided bilingual assistance via phone calls and text messages, with 4,540 contacts.

      The County recognizes that while much has been accomplished, more must be done. We look forward to reviewing the full audit report, including recommendations for guidance, assistance, establishment of state standards, and the provision of funding and other resources to assist California counties with providing the best emergency response services available. The County of Sonoma stands ready to be partners with the Legislature, Cal OES, Cal Fire, other counties and local governments, stakeholders, and most importantly, the residents of Sonoma County, to improve local emergency planning, preparedness and response.