With devastating wildfires raging across California in recent years, the importance of emergency notification systems has become increasingly apparent.
Last year, Calaveras County rolled out a new emergency notification system – Calaveras Alert – which is used to quickly notify local residents during emergency events like wildfires and floods.
But in order to be notified, locals must opt-in by providing their contact information to the Calaveras County Office of Emergency Services (OES). So far, about 16,000 individuals have submitted their contact information to the county, Calaveras OES Director John Osbourn said.
“We try to take lessons from other disasters and incorporate that into our planning,” Osbourn said. “The Camp Fire was devastating for Butte County, for the town of Paradise, and for the state – it had statewide implications. We tried to look at that, the specific details of that incident, and others, to create an earlier warning system for our residents.”
The county’s emergency notification system consists of two parts: notifications sent to landlines, email addresses, cellphones and other portable devices, as well as two evacuation applications – the Mobile Evacuation Application for mobile devices, and the Public Evacuation Application for desktop computers and laptops.
The Public Evacuation Application provides real-time information to county residents during emergency events. Using a geographic information system (GIS), the application breaks a map of the county up into 60 grids containing 307 four-square-mile evacuation zones. It was created in conjunction with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire), the Calaveras County Sheriff’s Office and Calaveras OES.
Osbourn said that it is important for residents to be aware of the zone in which their residence is located.
“If an evacuation warning hits, this is the grid that we use to delineate what’s being ordered an evacuation, or what’s being warned as an evacuation, or information about whatever is going on in the two-by-two mile square,” he said. “It’s handy for people to know what square they’re in, so that if there’s a press release that mentions ‘Zone 136,’ they know that they’re in 136.”
The second piece of the emergency system consists of notifications sent directly to county residents, and is powered by Everbridge.
“Anyone that has signed up for Calaveras Alert, we can send them an electronic notification by way of their choosing – voice message, text, email,” Osbourn said. “When they sign up with Calaveras Alert, they can set their preferences.”
Osbourn said that residents should provide multiple methods for being contacted. The notification system will attempt to reach each contact method in order of preference until contact is made.
“We live in a very rural county, and our communications infrastructure is not to the same technological level of an urban area, so having multiple ways to be reached is important to us,” he said. “We want to be able to get the message to our residents as quickly as we can.”
The system is capable of pinpointing small geographic areas in the county.
“Say there’s some kind of hazardous material release, and we need to notify everyone within a half a mile radius of the incident,” Osbourn said. “We can actually pinpoint the incident, draw a half-mile circle, and then we can extract everyone that’s signed up within that area and notify them. It’s a really progressive and advanced tool.”
Once an emergency message is drafted, notifications can be sent out simultaneously to the affected portion of the population.
“It all goes out at once, and it starts down each contact and each person’s preferred method,” Osbourn said. “If you think about doing that with just a few mouse clicks, it’s an extremely efficient way to push out messaging.”
After residents receive a notification, they will be provided with directions to confirm that they have been notified.
“That confirmation is important to us,” Osbourn said. “Otherwise, we’re going to keep trying to get ahold of you.”
The emergency notification system was used just last week during the Conestoga Fire, which burned about 11 acres in Copperopolis.
“We had actually started to issue evacuation warnings,” Osbourn said. “Fortunately, we have top-notch first responders that were able to stop forward progress of the fire almost immediately after we issued that warning.”
Osbourn said that it is important to plan for emergencies, especially wildfires. Precautions that can be taken include making a wildfire action plan, preparing an emergency supply kit and creating a family communication plan.
“You should develop multiple egress routes from your home, and actually take the time to drive them and be familiar with them ahead of time,” he said. “It’s very important to know, and identify, where the best evacuation routes are from your home.”
Calaveras OES also utilizes social media to distribute information.
“We try to maintain a high presence on social media, and we have accounts on Facebook, Twitter and Linkedin,” Osbourn said. “We try to spread the information out across as many different avenues as we can, to reach as many folks as we can in a timely manner.”
Osbourn said that he hopes more county residents will take the time to sign up for Calaveras Alert.
“I think that it is critically important when it comes to receiving verified, actual information from the county,” he said.
To sign up for Calaveras Alert, visit member.everbridge.net/index/892807736729028/#/signup.
For more information on emergency preparedness, or to use the Calaveras OES evacuation applications, visit the Calaveras OES website at oes.calaverasgov.us.