Independent firm evaluates Santa Barbara's responses to fires, mudslides
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The Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors held a hearing on Tuesday to discuss the report they received on the handling of the Thomas Fire and Montecito debris-flows. The county hired an outside firm to assess how the emergency plans were executed, and provide feedback in advance of the upcoming winter. Hagerty Consulting, Inc. provided input in many sectors that the county can improve on to ensure that the area is as prepared as possible to handle another disaster. Many of the suggestions involved streamlining the communications between the county and its residents so that information can be provided to people in danger more efficiently. According to Noozhawk, these suggestions include improving the clarity and simplicity of public messaging, procedures for evacuations and returns to evacuation sites, and utilization of local government partners. A main suggestion in this was to consolidate all of the evacuation and response plans into a single document that every responder can have access to.
The report also highlighted some strengths of the collective response. Hagerty Consulting, Inc. praised the use of the Joint Information Center, volunteers that helped hand out masks and distribute water, and the support of the entire community. The report recognized how the volunteers in the area were instrumental in relief efforts. The consulting agency praised the combined efforts of the community as “Herculean,” but questions were still raised about how the disaster was handled.
Local Montecito resident Dave Boyd was the lone member of the public to speak up at the hearing, according to multiple local news sources. He voiced his concerns over the lack of mention of the 23 people who perished in the disaster, and asked why the report did not say anything about how and why they died. He implored the board to conduct an analysis to identify the direct causes of their passing, and how to prevent it from happening again. Of the 23 people killed, 19 lived in areas deemed a voluntary evacuation zone, which raises more questions on how the evacuation zoning and warning messages are handled. Boyd suggested that the county conduct a root cause analysis, described by ASQ as “a collective term that describes a wide range of approaches, tools, and techniques used to uncover causes of problems.” This type of analysis is usually used in industrial settings when a severe malfunction or problem arises, to find the root-cause of the problem and make sure it does not happen again. For the county, this would mean re-analyzing the emergency alert system and first response to the mudslides specifically. The aim would be to effectively evaluate what went wrong in the zoning of evacuation areas, and what they can do to make sure nothing like this happens again.
The board responded by saying that the county did the best they could with the information given, and also touched on the physical and mental toll the disasters took on everyone involved. Office of Emergency Management Director Rob Lewin said he will explore options available regarding performing a root-cause analysis.