San Diego Fires post-mortem: the government

| October 30, 2007

[UPDATED 11/01/07 0734 PDT] – The San Diego Union-Tribune has an excellent article by Alex Roth and Mark Sauer discussing to what extent government agencies handled things better this time than back in 2003. It particularly notes the need for more fire stations (with matching firefighters and equipment) to meet the risk of large-scale fires such as these.   ..bruce w..

As noted in the previous post, I solicited feedback on what the media, the government, and we ourselves could have done better in responding to the San Diego fires. Here are some of your comments about the goverment response (click on ‘Read the article’ to get to them); on the whole, they were more positive than the feedback about the media.

From one reader:

For the future, there should be someone like you at the head of every disaster; an information specialist who sits at the top of the organization, but whose sole purpose is to gather and disseminate useful information. Imagine if you had been sitting at the command center, hearing from the firefighters in the field, knowing where the hot spots were and able to disseminate the information almost in real time….

I really don’t know what state, local governments could have done better. From my viewpoint, the reason there was such little loss of life is because they were proactive in evacuating areas in danger. It takes a lot of guts to order evacuation of 500,000 people, but they did it and hardly anyone died. I know there are a lot of people getting too annoyed [spitting on and cursing police/MP’s keeping them from their homes] because they don’t understand why they should be kept away. Assuming there is a good reason, it should have been better communicated; there’s no reason for people to get so upset if there’s a reason for what they’re doing. And people who needed to get back and feed animals left behind should have been allowed to do so, especially if there is a way to get a few people in safely, as opposed to opening the floodgates. So better coordination of information is a need there, too. I suppose an information czar would need access to all the local governmental operations as well. People on the blogs were endlessly confused; I’ve received a reverse 911 call; does that mean I have to go now? Am I in an evacuation area? I heard we can go back from this source, but this other sources says no; what’s the real story? Where is the fire?

And from another reader:

I can relate to your comments about how an official does or feel they
must respond to events. The fundamental issue (IMHO) is the relationship
between the government and the people. We seem stuck between two
ideas…the old idea that the leaders are like our parents and have to
protect us (even from ourselves), and new idea, promised to us by the
Founding Fathers- that we are the government, that the government is
controlled by the people and serves the people.

Unfortunately it requires us to be up to the task of governing ourselves so
they don’t have to. If we could do that, we would be able and willing to
give our representatives direction, and to demand that they follow that
direction without getting distracted by propaganda and shiny things. As it
is now, officials have to guess what we want (or guess what they can get
away with), and when they’re wrong, the retribution and blame follow.

If we could give them clear direction, there would be no need for blame, and
therefore no need for the constant CYA approach.

And another:

In situations like that of Monday, graphic information on exactly where a fire is and how it’s moving is extremely important and very difficult to come by for someone like me, concerned at a distance about the safety of loved ones.

The usual emergency information sites were very slow and not very informative, at least with updated information in a rapidly-changing situation. One such, after taking several minutes to come up late Monday, provided; “We have a fire situation in the county”. Very helpful, eh??!!…

You guys could teach the emergency services a thing or six about coordinating and mashing – to the benefit of all.

And someone else, living in Temecula:

Yesterday (10/23) the [Temecula] city link sucked. People screamed bloody murder. Today they update it constantly, whenever something new comes up. Swift kick in the butt to get the political ass-weasels motivated, I guess. 😀

From someone with actual background in forestry management and firefighting:

What citizens can lobby their governments to do: promote better inter agency cooperation! No matter what the disaster, this can always be improved. Figure out ways to get local CDF and Forest Service crews, who have more training and experience fighting these fires, involved earlier. In every disaster there are stories of jurisdictional disputes and agencies keeping territorial control over situations they can’t really handle.

Don’t rely on the FEMA or other federal response. If you look at what hapened in this series of fires, the people who died were already gone by the time the feds were called in. Cross-train local firefighters. Wildland fire suppression is a specialized study. Force your local governments to participate in regional disaster response and recovery plans (when you investigate this, you’d be surprised how many won’t). When people take an active role in solving their own problems, they can be quite effective: I reference the fantastic work done by the Palomar Mountain Volunteer Fire Department in saving so much on the mountain.

And from someone who evacuated out of Escondido:

what i wish the fire and emergency authorities could do is devote a few people to posting the most uptodate info possible to the web. my brother who volunteered for OCRACES this week, said the fire dept knows exactly where the fire is – its just not a priority to get this info out to civilians. the reverse911 system was a huge advantage. but i saw so many people on the sosd boards wondering just where the fire was, and in the absense of good information, concluding that they should stay put until told to get out. personally i think this kind of thinking needs to be changed becuse it puts people in harms way. i would rather have had the authorities say:

1) here exactly is where the fire is (to the best of their knowledge, which still would have been much more accurate than the other fire info we had which was 6-12 hours out of date. even accuracy to within 3-4 hours would have been much more valuable. i lost a lot of faith the maps when i realized the maps were really only getting updated 1x a day, sometime between midnight and 6am. and tha maps would stay the same all day long until midnight when you finally realized the fire had moved significantly furither. i realize that all staffing would be prioritied to put the fire out. but some staff should be assigned to public awareness, or at least to making data available. as you say, we have the technology. at a minimum if the data were made available, there are plenty of enterprising data engineers at large such as yourselves who can sift thru and post in real time.).

2) we recommend you leave now if you feel uncomfortable.

Finally, from the comments attached to the original post:

What could have been done better by state and local government in dealing with these fires?

The State needs to work on better preparation to release the spotter planes to guide available air tankers, or reexamine their policy on how air support for fires is handled. It sounded like a bureaucratic pissing contest that delayed getting tankers in the air before the winds really picked up… just my opinion.

…I suggest (although the logistics would be nearly ridiculous) that in future situations, the government blast wi-fi signals as far and as wide as possible. Laptops with wifi are getting cheaper and cheaper — although radio is easier to obtain, the Internet is a much deeper data stream.

So, to the questions. What could have been done better by state and local government in dealing with these fires? Having still been in San Diego County when the Cedar fire went through, I think the state and county governments really did a much improved job. I know folks from that fire who called 911 when they saw fire on a ridge from their house and were told there was no threat and it was under control. Thank God they had the sense to evacuate anyway. Their home was destroyed. So, the reverse 911 and proactive evacuation of even minimally threatened areas seemed to be a good decision, although I know some have complained about that. It seems there will always be something to complain about and something to point fingers at. Overall, it’s greatly improved from my perspective.

Certainly, the San Diego County Emergency Center is going to have to realize that people are going to use their web site as a critical source of information. Having the site continually time out and the maps failing to load deserves an F in functionality. I gave up even trying to get information from there.

Camp Pendleton’s web site also did not function well or provide continuous updates when the fires started there. Because of the nature of the families who live about the installation, it should be realized that people from all of the country are going to go to that web site for information. We cannot get information from local news. If the authorities (county) really want people to stay off their cell phones, they have to provide more quantitative information in a timely manner.

Finally, I’m going to put together a posting of suggestions made to BruceH and me, though mostly what we got was blush-inducing praise. Again, if you have additional comments you’d like to add, just post them here. ..bruce w..

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Category: Emergency Preparedness, Main, SAN DIEGO EMERGENCIES, San Diego Fires

About the Author ()

Webster is Principal and Founder at Bruce F. Webster & Associates, as well as an Adjunct Professor of Computer Science at Brigham Young University. He works with organizations to help them with troubled or failed information technology (IT) projects. He has also worked in several dozen legal cases as a consultant and as a testifying expert, both in the United States and Japan. He can be reached at, or you can follow him on Twitter as @bfwebster.

Comments (1)

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  1. schellyg says:

    Just a shout out to all the 911 and emergency dispatchers. The firefighters deserve all the accolades you can give them, but let’s not forget the brave folks manning the phones. I understand the North County JPA folks came very close to having to evacuate their own facility, but bravely pressed on and continued to coordinate the communications between all of the emergency crews. We should thank all dispatchers who worked for days on end to keep communications rolling.