By Rebecca Woodbury, City of San Rafael, CA
One week ago I woke up to a 6 a.m. phone call from my parent’s landline. My brother told me the hillside up above our parents home was on fire.
On Sunday, October 9, a series of wildfires broke out across the state of California, some of them starting in the dead of night. Fires don’t adhere to jurisdictional boundaries, but us government agencies sure do. When something of this magnitude occurs, all of a sudden a multitude of agencies must work together – not just in their fire and police response, but also in their messaging and coordination of vital public information; data sharing and collection; round the clock staffing of emergency operations and evacuation centers.
In times like this, government websites, social media, and emergency notification systems play a crucial role in the sharing of official information. Good information keeps people off roads so public safety can do their jobs and out of evacuation areas so they don’t get injured from open gas lines and down power lines; it lets them know if they have to boil water so they don’t get sick from contamination; it tells them how to report themselves as safe so they can be removed from missing persons lists and connected with family. It tells them if it’s safe to return home; where they can get the help they need to rebuild their lives; that their community is going to get through this together.
On Friday night, I received the mutual aid call to assist Santa Rosa’s Public Information Team in their Emergency Operations Center. As you read this post, I’ll be starting my third shift with them. It’s been an incredible experience so far and I feel so honored to be able to contribute. Here are a few observations from the EOC that I’ve made so far:
- It’s amazing to see how people transform from their regular jobs into emergency roles. I’m not sure what prepares you for a situation like this, but I am in complete awe of how people are working together to accomplish such incredible tasks. The pace, the haste, the energy, the intensity is like nothing I’ve ever experienced.
- I have never seen so many interruptions – they are so frequent that you cannot expect to have even a one-minute conversation with anyone. It’s almost a dance how you move from one person to the next, conversations ending abruptly and moving from one task to another. It forces you to make every 30 seconds with someone count.
- People really take care of each other. It’s an incredibly stressful environment and it’s so great to see how much people care about each other’s physical and mental well-being. Last night some lady made me the most delicious cup of hot chocolate with one of those giant marshmallows and it was just about my favorite thing ever. Also, I finished off a giant tub of red vines which was really satisfying.
- Websites. OK, people. Websites are really important. Please, please, please make sure your website is mobile-first. No one ran out of their house in the middle of the night with their desktop in their arms. And, next time you are evaluating a CMS – you should be able to figure out how to use the basic features and functionality in under 30 minutes. And if a vendor doesn’t let you try it out before you buy it – tell them that if your emergency operations center is activated, they need to send someone to make website updates, for free.
On a personal note
I haven’t fully processed what just happened to the city where I grew up. Thousands of homes have been reduced to ash – many of them showing up in my Facebook feed as the places my friends grew up and where their parents still lived. The National Guard is in town, as well as cadaver dogs and people are looting the evacuated areas. The community is experiencing unprecedented trauma.
I’m proud of all the first responders from San Rafael who haven’t slept for days in order to help save homes, hold fire lines, rescue people and pets, and secure evacuation areas. I’m proud of our non-safety staff who have been mobilizing and staffing evacuation centers, including our amazing librarians who moved our children’s programming to the centers.
And, I’m proud to call Santa Rosa’s Mayor, Chris Coursey, a friend. He’s even partially responsible for my career in public service. He helped me with my first internship in public service and served as a reference for my first government job. I can’t imagine a better person at the helm of all this.