Early Saturday, July 18, the Orinda Police Department, the Moraga Orinda Fire District (MOFD) and the Community Warning System (CWS) held an all-Orinda virtual evacuation exercise. On the whole, it was a success, and we all learned quite a bit about how the system works and how it could work better. One positive outcome was that many people registered for CWS and now nearly half the residents are registered to receive a disaster alert.
Carol Brovelli of the Sleepy Hollow Firewise group organized a meeting to evaluate the experience with Dennis Rein, MOFD Emergency Preparedness Director, Orinda Police Chief David Cook and Heather Tiernan, Contra Costa CWS Manager. This virtual meeting, which occurred July 30, produced many highlights.
The post-evacuation survey data shows that the vast majority of respondents thought the drill was very helpful and motivated them to backup computer files, gather irreplaceable personal items, collect important documents and pack a “Go Bag.” In Firewise communities, the drill provided a catalyst for strengthening the Block Captain systems.
A number of concerns were discussed. CWS did not use the full set of protocols for the evacuation drill. For example, in a real emergency, the alert would have been accompanied by a wireless emergency alert (WEA) sound similar to Amber Alerts, and if CWS did not connect with a phone number, it did not try to redial, so some people were not alerted. Registrants may not have received an alert if they were incorrectly registered.
Not everyone registered with CWS received a phone call/text, or they received them late. The cell phone towers and phone switching stations cannot process the phone numbers that CWS sends properly. This is a serious systemic issue that can undermine the timed evacuation plan: two members of the same household can receive an alert 10-15 minutes apart. Furthermore, some people thought the CWS alert was SPAM because the CWS voice used generic language and sounded robotic. CWS is working to improve this but would use very clear language in a real disaster.
The various warning apps have different ways of being useful:
1. Nixle – Pre-warning of fire danger. Text your ZIP CODE to 888777 for mobile alerts.
2. PulsePoint- Learn about fires in the area simultaneously with the Fire Department. Please note that the alerts may result in late night warnings that may be disruptive. www.pulsepoint.org/
3. CWS Alerts – Notifies you when to evacuate. You can register landlines, emails, and cell phones. The WEA sound will be used in a real evacuation, so be sure to have the sound on your phone turned up during fire season. CWS Alerts- Notifies you when to evacuate. You can register landlines, emails, and cell phones. The WEA sound will be used in a real evacuation, so be sure to have the sound on your phone turned up during fire season. PLEASE NOTE: CWS has changed their phone number from 000-000-0000 to 925-655-0195 a county registered phone number starting in September. Program the CWS number into your cell phone contacts so that the alerts are not identified as ‘SPAM’ and make CWS a “Favorite” so that the alert sounds at night. For more information and the new phone number, access the “how to” at http://www.cococws.us where you can sign in using your registration email. Register at cwsalerts.com/registration. The key to a timely evacuation is being aware of Red Flag Warning Days. Police Chief Cook is going to investigate using Nixle to alert people to fire danger. NextDoor is not the most reliable source for fire updates. Grab your Go-Bag, lock your doors, close your windows and shades, place an “EVACUATED” sign on your door and leave in one car.
It is equally important to create a defensible space around your home and clear vegetation from the roads (three feet back and 15 feet high) so that emergency vehicles can get in to fight fires.
Carol Brovelli co-wrote this article.