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New state protocols will help communities respond faster to disaster

Posted at 11:00 PM, Apr 05, 2019

California is getting an upgrade to its emergency alert system.

The California Office of Emergency Services (OES) rolled out new guidelines that help warn residents in the event of a disaster.

Some people say they weren’t given enough warning before the Santa Rosa fire or the Montecito mudslides hit.

“We were prepared in case anything happened, I don’t think anyone could envision what actually did and the complete and sheer, utter devastation,” said Gina DePinto, the Santa Barbara County communications manager.

Even though Santa Barbara County sent out an alert ahead of the devastating debris flow in 2018, the county says a glitch delayed it.

“We realized that many of the cell phones did not activate with that alert knowing that it went out,” said DePinto. “The Office of Emergency Management started back-filling alerts to make sure people were receiving alerts.”

Now, a new statewide standard for emergency alerts aims to prevent delays.

The guidebook covers all aspects of emergency preparedness from when to send an alert and how to word it to how to properly train employees.

In the state guidelines, “Fear of triggering ‘panic’ is not a valid reason to delay or avoid issuing a warning…When dealing with uncertain or conflicting information about a threat, the Alerting Authority should choose to err on the side of protecting the public.”

The San Luis Obispo County emergency services manager says it’s tough to get the timing right.

“It’s encouraging jurisdictions to not worry about panicking folks in a real dire emergency in sending out an alert, however, that can backfire because if nothing happens then it looks like you cried wolf,” said Joe Guzzardi, San Luis Obispo County Emergency Services Manager. “Then the next time you have an event they won’t trust you.”

Guzzardi says the new guidelines will help all counties get on the same page.

“You look back at the debris flow and you see some of the mistakes that were made or in Santa Rosa and you look back and you see maybe they didn’t send out an alert when they should have,” said Guzzardi. “So the folks that learn the hard way hopefully change for the better.”

Of course, each community is different.

“In Santa Rosa and Sonoma, they are relatively small towns and they don’t have the kind of staffing and experience that you would want if you were to be hit by an emergency like that,” said Guzzardi.

For example, San Luis Obispo County has mapped out a separate plan on how to handle a crisis at Diablo Canyon.

“A nuclear emergency would be the ultimate emergency. So because we have those systems in place we are able to deal with fire or flood or earthquake,” said Guzzardi.

Both counties are working to make alerts bilingual.

Some systems require you to subscribe to get alerts, but you should check with the county to see how you can be prepared for disaster.

When technology fails during an emergency, it’s important to have a battery powered radio on hand.