Expanding the reach of available emergency notification systems, distributing information about fire preparedness to county residents and continuing to hone the county’s fire-fighting capabilities are among the recommendations provided by the San Mateo County Civil Grand Jury in its July report on wildfire risk and response.
Lower precipitation, higher average temperatures and increased human presence in areas where forests meet residences in the county are among the factors behind an increased likelihood of fuel ignition in the county, according to the report. Though the grand jury report credits state and local fire agencies for taking steps to prevent and fight major wildfires, the 19-person jury noted firefighters are still concerned about how many homes they could protect if a major wildfire were to spark in San Mateo County.
The report also underscored the importance of improving emergency notifications to residents in the event of a fire and increasing public awareness of emergency response planning to facilitate evacuation from danger zones. Wireless Emergency Alerts to cellphones, Telephone Emergency Notifications sent to landlines and the San Mateo County Alert system are currently available to emergency officials as methods for spreading the word about threats. However, the jury recommended further expansion of these networks to ensure residents are alerted to emergencies even if critical infrastructure is damaged.
“All of these systems have shortcomings in their ability to reach threatened residents in an emergency, including because of the vulnerability of their infrastructure to damage or destruction during a wildfire,” said Grand Jury Foreman Michael Patrick in a press release.
As an opt-in alert system, San Mateo County Alert, or SMC Alert, requires residents to enroll to receive notifications sent to cellphones, smartphones, landlines, email and tablets. With only 11% of county residents currently enrolled in SMC Alert, the grand jury is recommending county officials leverage Senate Bill 821, which authorizes county and city officials to work with public utilities to enroll residents in an opt-out public emergency warning system, according to the report.
Wireless Emergency Alerts, which include Amber Alerts and enable governments to send alerts to cellphones in specific geographic areas, and Telephone Emergency Notifications, a reverse 911 system aimed at reaching all landlines, are both opt-out systems facilitating alerts for the most extreme threats to the county, according to the report. The grand jury acknowledged a wildfire could damage the critical infrastructure and cut power for both of these systems, as well as the SMC Alert system.
Supervisor David Canepa, who serves on the county’s Emergency Services Council, said he was pleased to see many of the report’s recommendations mirror several goals county emergency services officials have set for themselves. Acknowledging the county became the first in the state to adopt SB 821 in November, Canepa noted officials are currently working with utilities to expand the number of cellphones SMC Alert reaches and also to convert the system from an opt-in to an opt-out system, a shift expected to significantly increase the number of county residents receiving public safety notifications.
Making sure information is correct
Though Canepa is also supporting Senate Bill 160, which proposes to require counties to integrate cultural competence into their emergency plans, he acknowledged the complexities county officials have already faced in preparing to work with data from utility companies, noting officials have to ensure the data officials will aggregate is complete and updated.
“San Mateo County has around 850,000 residents,” he said. “How do we make sure that we have the most relevant information and the information to reach them?”
Canepa supported the report’s emphasis on the need for redundancy in emergency notifications, and also appreciated the grand jury’s suggestion that emergency services official work with the San Mateo County Assessor’s Office to include emergency response information with property tax bills sent to homeowners. Though the grand jury acknowledged in its report that the information may not be received by renters, the report noted an enclosure could direct residents to a website with maps of evacuation routes for various San Mateo County communities.
The grand jury also underscored the need for residents to become familiar with several possible evacuation routes from their homes given the potential for evacuation routes to become congested and chaotic in the event of a wildfire, according to the report. Because notification systems may not reach everyone and some routes may not be accessible during a disaster, some cities urge residents to chart out alternative evacuation routes before a wildfire happens so they can evacuate before they receive an emergency notification, according to the report.
Taking preventative steps, planning ahead
Dave Pucci, Redwood City deputy fire chief, said his department, which also serves San Carlos, has been encouraging residents to study alternate paths they can take to and from their homes in case of a wildfire so they don’t feel like they need to wait for a notification guiding them away from their neighborhoods. He said his department has been working with homeowners in hillside areas or with streets shaped like cul-de-sacs, which may only offer one route in and out of a neighborhood, to use wildfire planning tools his department has created and devise ways they can quickly evacuate their homes if needed.
“We don’t know where the next fire is going to be or how it’s going to spread,” he said. “We want residents to look at their neighborhood and come up with their own evacuation plans.”
Though Pucci emphasized fire officials’ recommendation that residents leave their homes if they detect a fire, he said they can take steps to create defensible space around their homes to slow or stop the spread of wildfire. Clearing brush around one’s home and using fire-resistant roofing and siding materials are among the steps homeowners can take to protect their homes from catching fire, he said.
Pucci said June 8 evacuation drill in San Carlos’ Crestview neighborhood provided an opportunity for residents to practice their emergency plans and also allowed officials to test the notification system. He said some 40 vehicles evacuated the neighborhood during the exercise, and noted officials are now planning a similar effort in Redwood City.
Pucci said the fire agencies in the county have historically worked well together to prevent and fight wildfires, and continue to coordinate across agencies and with Cal Fire to conduct fuel management and evacuation drills and create evacuation routes.
“In San Mateo County, we’ve really enjoyed a good, healthy relationship between all the fire departments,” he said.
Visit hsd.smcsheriff.com/smcalert to sign up for SMC Alert. Visit redwoodcity.org/departments/fire-department/fire-prevention/defensible-space for fire planning tools such as the homeowners checklist and strategies for establishing defensible space around one’s home.
(650) 344-5200 ext. 106