Sonoma County and northern California in recent months were household names when it came to national news and disaster-related discussions. This is where the tragic wildfires occurred that took more than 20 lives and destroyed over 5,000 homes. While reading an article from Emergency Management Magazine, I became inspired to write this article about the potential lessons that could be learned from this incident and how they can be applied in the emergency management aspect of tomorrow. This is all boiling down to public alerting and seriousness of getting the word out to folks that are in the path of destruction due to some form of incident, be it natural, man-made or technological. It is of most importance for us in the emergency management community to save lives first and always, no matter what.

No Warning

Many residents in Sonoma County were stricken by the angst of not receiving a warning of the wildfire. News stations might be covering the wildfire located on one section of a forest but by the time a viewer goes to bed and sleeps 6 hours, the fires could have spread to their locality and now they are threatened but asleep in bed, unknowingly of the disaster that is lurking at their front door.
So the standard warning system at the time of this disaster was through emergency alert systems on phones. But these alerts are often very vague, short and limited on explanation. Many residents complained that they had never even received such alerts on their own phones and that if it wasn’t for family and friends calling them, they might not be alive today to tell their stories about surviving the fire storm.
This sparked a will for officials to overhaul the emergency alert system by working with the FCC to add additional features to the process. In the end, the character limit was dramatically increased and the ability to support external links was added to inform people more about what is going on in terms of the alert. The FCC has praised this new set of improvements and feels that it has the potential to save many lives as it continues to be implemented. But it won’t save the 20+ people who perished in the Sonoma County fires. It won’t save those poor souls at all.

Lessons Learned

I’m relieved that officials are starting to expand the emergency broadcast and alert system to prevent further incidents that occur during wildfires and other major disasters. I applaud any official or agency that works to improve emergency management and maintain a Whole Community alignment. But there is a HUGE lesson to be learned here that I feel is important to the emergency management community, especially my counterparts in the rural and remote areas of the discipline. The lesson learned here is to not wait until several incidents occur before taking preventative action. If you learned your lesson the first time, don’t wait to learn it again, take action to prevent something bad from happening again. We’ve had a lot of wildfires and disasters within the span of the emergency broadcast and alert system’s existence. Why are we just now updating this system? The technology and the ability to update the system have been waiting for a long time and we are just now doing it? It is likely because people have died and families and friends are causing uproar over it. We should never wait for people to die before taking action to save lives – we need to be more innovative than that.
So I call on communities and industries that practice emergency management to learn something from this. Look around and determine the potential threats that face your community or company and imagine the loss that it could bring. How would you alert your townsfolk or your workers that something bad is about to happen, giving them time to take actions to protect their lives? Find a solution, plan and implement it and don’t forget to exercise it. Now imagine that solution being known about but never implemented. Imagine the loss that could have happened. Could you actually live with that? The lesson learned here is to not wait until loss before taking action to prevent loss. We need to quit relying on the aftermath of disasters to be our core component of planning for disasters.
Please share this article with others, especially on social media. I would love to thank you for taking the time to read this article and please feel free to add to the discussions by leaving a comment below. This article was written by Shawn J. Gossman, M.Sc., M.B.A. a professional and scholar focusing on rural and remote aspects of emergency management, business continuity and public health topics.

About the Author

Shawn J. Gossman
Shawn J. GossmanB.S., M.S., M.B.A., SEM, PDS
Shawn J. Gossman is an article and publication contributor of rural and remote-based emergency management, continuity and public health topics. Shawn holds a Master of Science concentrating in Emergency Management and a MBA in Hazardous Environment Logistics and Supply Chain Management. Shawn is dedicated to helping rural communities and organizations be a part of the Whole Community approach of National Preparedness.