Berkeley emergency responders assess communications after North Bay fires

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In the midst of the North Bay fires that killed dozens and wiped out thousands of homes, Bay Area emergency responders and community members are considering how best to utilize emergency communication resources in Berkeley.

Neither Sonoma nor Napa counties, where the fires began, used an Amber Alert-style emergency communication system to notify residents of the fires. The system, called Wireless Emergency Alerts, or WEA, sends messages based on where someone is standing as opposed to who signed up.

Sonoma County had the ability to use this system but decided against it out of concern that it would panic residents and impede emergency responders. The counties instead opted for systems residents must register to use, such as Nixle, SoCalAlert and social media.

In the event of a “large-scale, multi-day and multi-location disaster,” many agencies would work together on a command response, according to UCPD Sgt. Sabrina Reich. As for UC Berkeley, Reich said emergency management staff, Tang Center medical staff, a medical reserve corps and officers trained to respond to large-scale incidents on campus are in place.

“In terms of notification, we try to message early and often via Nixle,” Reich said in an email. “Where we are able, we may coordinate our responses with the city and county. We also have the campus public address system that reaches the four corners of campus.”

The Bay Area fire and police departments are still actively working in many different areas that have been affected by the fires, according to Reich.

“UCPD has had the honor of helping to assist victims of the fire and support local agencies in maintaining safety in their communities,” Reich said in an email. “I’m sure once the fires are contained there will be a review to determine if there were any areas for improvement.”

According to Berkeley Fire Department spokesperson Keith May, the city of Berkeley has an emergency operations plan updated earlier this year that details how the city’s departments will respond to and recover from all hazards.

“One of the main priorities (of the plan) is life safety along with extinguishment and/or confinement. At the same time, resources need to be summoned quickly,” May said in an email.

The BFD transitioned to the AC Alert System in July, according to May. This allows the department to communicate messages to the public — but only if they sign up for the system. May added that the information received can be controlled by the individual and received over a wide range of devices such as phones and computers.  

Doug Levy, a campus alumnus and a consultant specializing in emergency management, said dealing with the North Bay fires was complicated because they did not behave as expected of typical wildfires, but that there is always room for improvement in emergency responses.

According to Levy, the city of Berkeley and UCPD have a good record of using alert systems to get information out, adding that people at UC Berkeley are at an advantage with emails and a majority with access to smartphones.

The WEA system can now also pinpoint which specific cell towers will be activated, according to Levy, which would help avoid a county-wide panic when alerts are sent out.

“They did an amazing job under the worst possible circumstances,” Levy said. “But we have to look at what happened and think about what we can do better if anything like this ever happens again.”

Contact Kate Tinney at ktinney[email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @K_Tinney.