Solano Grand Jury: Countywide communication lacking in LNU fire

New growth is coming back near trees at the Lake Solano campgrounds that were burned in the LNU fires. Photo by Crystal Apilado/Winters Express

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By Matt Miller
McNaughton Media

The Solano County Civil Grand Jury released a report this month on the response in the first hours of the LNU Lighting Complex Fire in August 2020.

Firefighters they interviewed called it “chaos.”

The grand jury found myriad problems, from the difficulty in communicating between the multiple firefighters trying to answer the call to some firefighters turning off their radios.

First responders did not know with whom to communicate, according to the report, did not have leadership directions and did not have crucial communication technology. The failings caused critical agencies to be caught off guard in the county. Responders were vulnerable and almost entirely on their own.

In June, the grand jury also released a report that Solano County is not prepared for future emergencies.

The failure to set up an incident command post “exacerbated” communication failures. Firefighters said that without a clear leader they lost two hours of valuable time. The grand jury also found that the debrief and after-action reports were sorely lacking.

“Almost every firefighter who spoke to the Civil Grand Jury expressed that there tend to be fiefdoms among the fire districts in Solano County, so when trying to respond to fire incidents, everyone has to tread lightly to avoid offending anyone,” the report reads. “The price of such caution is the safety of the community.”

The grand jury learned that at 10:30 p.m. the Fairfield Fire Department personnel received a warning from the Benicia Fire Department personnel that the fire was coming. Between 3 and 4 a.m. the next morning, CAL FIRE arrived and the Incident Command Post was finally established.

The use of multiple types of radio communications also meant that responders could not communicate with each other. Many firefighters said they would benefit from multi-band handsets. They also felt a countywide system needs improvement before the next disaster.

The grand jury recommends that all emergency response personnel be trained on protocol for establishing an Incident Command Post. It must be established immediately when danger is detected.

The lack of a consolidated digital communication system in Solano County also hampered effective firefighting efforts. The Board of Supervisors must broaden efforts to fund and promote the establishment of a modern digital countywide emergency communication system, according to the report.

The grand jury also found that although law enforcement and fire departments throughout the county have been working to establish a joint power agreement, there is little support from the county to finalize efforts. The grand jury wants an agreement in place within the county and develop a plan to move forward.

A county fire department is needed to serve the unincorporated areas of Solano County, according to the report.

Proposition 172, which established a permanent one-half cent sale tax to maintain local public safety functions in cities and counties, was found to not be equitably distributed with the public safety entities. The grand jury is recommending that the Board of Supervisors and cities within the county to reprioritize the distribution of funds from the proposition, ensuring that it is distributed more equitably to include fire safety.

Only two agencies involved in the LNU fire produced after-action reports. The grand jury recommends that all responding emergency agencies using public funding be required to produce after-action reports.

“Because fires are becoming a part of Northern California’s new normal,” the report states, “there is no time to wait. Solano County and the cities within the county are out of time and must act now before the next catastrophic incident occurs.”

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