Yolo County officials address emergency alert failure during LNU fire

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On the evening of Aug. 18 and into the morning of Aug. 19, fires burning in Napa County changed direction and began heading into western Yolo County.

Now known as the LNU Lightning Complex fires, they prompted evacuation orders to go out to multiple zones in the county, including those in the vicinity of the city of Winters on Aug. 19.

The problem: Residents in those areas who expected to receive an emergency alert via a phone call were out of luck. Text and email alerts went through, but none of the voice phone alerts sent out by the county’s emergency alert system did.

“One hundred percent of the voice communication tactics — the audible phone calls that leave you a message on your cell phone or home phone — did not go through,” Dana Carey, manager of Yolo County’s Office of Emergency Services, told the Board of Supervisors on Tuesday.

“They did not reach their end destinations.”

Turns out they were identified as robocalls and blocked.

Carey said legislation enacted by the state in 2019 to eliminate robocalls led in part to the failure.

For six years, up until last fall, the county used an emergency alert number, 999-999-9999, that was easily identifiable to residents as a mass notification message.

In 2019, after the robocall law was passed, the county purchased a new number — 833-422-5253 — that would not be identified by computer systems as a robocall number.

However, on Aug. 19, the system “reverted back to using our old caller ID number rather than the 833 number, so they were immediately scrubbed by companies as robocalls and were denied being delivered,” Carey said.

The county’s vendor has now gone through and reprogrammed the mass notification system, and a test will be conducted at 10 a.m. on Friday to ensure it’s working, Carey said.

Mass notifications will be sent to zones 58, 59 and 60 (all in the vicinity of Winters) “just so we can make sure the program is working,” said Carey.

She and County Administrator Patrick Blacklock also noted that the county doesn’t rely on electronic notifications alone.

“The emergency mass notification system we use here in Yolo County is a combination of many different systems,” Carey said. “We use social media, we use the county’s website… the sheriff goes out using tones on their vehicle, fire (personnel) go door to door.

“There is no 100-percent going-to-hit-everybody-all-the-time solution, which is why we encourage everybody to sign up for as many different communication pathways in that digital system as possible,” she said, “and also heed the warnings of anybody who comes to their door. Listen for the law enforcement sirens. There’s a lot of different ways that we’re trying to get information out.”

Blacklock noted that “if anybody here has had their computer unexpectedly shut down when they’re working on it, you know that we cannot fully rely on an electronic system, so we’re going to continue to use our sheriff’s office and rely upon them in a situation like this.”

Winters resident Kate Laddish is one of the individuals who never received an alert.

Laddish, who said she was two blocks from one evacuation zone and one mile from two others, watched in alarm in the early hours of Aug. 19 as the fires raged to the west of her apartment.

“I hadn’t gotten any alerts,” she said. “No Yolo County information was available to me until a Facebook post at 5 a.m. so I had to make my decisions based on scanner traffic and Facebook live videos by a fire photojournalist who included addresses.”

Laddish, vice chair of the county’s In-Home Supportive Services Advisory Board, noted that she also lives in an apartment building that is home to seniors and people with disabilities.

Speaking to the Board of Supervisors on Tuesday, Laddish said, “a robust and effective alert system is a keystone of emergency preparedness and response.

“This is what connects emergency managers and all the rest of us. Our actions and our safety hinge on this working properly, and public trust in the system is crucial.”

Laddish was participating in Tuesday’s board meeting along with Davis resident Elaine Roberts Musser, both members of the disaster preparedness subcommittee within the county’s Commission on Aging and Adult Services.

That subcommittee was created to devise recommendations for county supervisors for helping prepare residents for emergencies ranging from fires to floods to power shutoffs.

On Tuesday, they presented a slate of recommendations that the board adopted.

Laddish focused in particular on the role of emergency alerts, urging the county to issue more alerts, not less.

“People are less likely to panic when they go into any given emergency familiar with and confident in the alert system,” said Laddish. “People with access and functional needs may require more time to prepare to evacuate and secure evacuation assistance, highlighting the need for increased and timely alerting.”

Additionally, she said, alerts should go out to the whole county, not just areas immediately impacted.

“This is especially true for incorporated areas adjacent to zones with evacuation warnings or orders,” Laddish said. “During the pandemic, it may be particularly important that people not evacuate into congregate settings unnecessarily. YoloAlert can be used to tell people who must leave and who should shelter in place.

“Finally, we request the board direct staff to take steps so that we will never again have 100 percent failure of the voice alerts, and to learn from what worked and what didn’t here and in nearby counties.”

City of Winters emergency alerts
Shelly Gunby the Interim City Manager (and Director of Financial Management) told the Express by email that for emergencies in the City of Winters individuals in command staff at the City, Winters Fire or Winters Police Departments can make the decision that an alert would be needed to utilize the local alerts to Winters residents.

She said to trigger an alert the command staff, usually a Public Safety official on scene of the emergency, would reach out to the Yolo County OES to request an alert to be sent.

“Decisions to ask for an alert are collaborative and responders (regardless if they are City/Fire/ or Police) on scene would confer before making an alert request,” Gunby told the Express.

On the early morning of Wednesday, Aug. 19 when the fire blazed into the greater Winters area, Gunby said residents within City limits did not receive an alert because the emergency was not in the City of Winters.

“The emergency was not in the City of Winters, all evacuation and areas of danger were in either the unincorporated areas of Yolo County, Napa County or Solano County,” Gunby said. “For emergencies in the unincorporated areas of Yolo, Napa and Solano Counties, the alerts are the responsibility of Yolo, Napa or Solano County depending on the area impacted.”

When asked if the City will consider doing another survey to see how residents feel regarding alerts, Gunby said she needs to finish reviewing all of the information available before she can make a recommendation to the City Council on matters involving the Alerting System in place.

Gunby said she just became familiar with the Alert System as she continues to transition into the Interim City Manager role.

City Council will receive a presentation from Carey at the Sept. 15 City Council meeting. Gunby said Winters community members who would like to listen in should plan to join the Zoom platform in order to hear the presentation. The link will be made available on the City website at http://www.cityofwinters.org/city-council-meetings_/.

Gunby encourages all residents of the City of Winters and the surrounding unincorporated area to sign up for text, email and voice alerts at www.yolo-alert.org.

Residents who live on the Solano County side can sign up for a similar alert system at http://www.solanocounty.com/depts/oes/alertsolano/information.asp.

Gunby also stressed the importance for residents in Yolo County to make themselves familiar with the different evacuation zones in the area.

To find your evacuation zone, visit evacuate.yolocounty.org.

*Express Editor-in-Chief, Crystal Apilado contributed to this article.

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