Friday, October 30, 2009

Loma Fire 2009/10/27

Santa Cruz County Sheriff Phil Wowak (far right) listens as a resident says he did not receive the evacuation warning from the county's reverse-911 system.

Tuesday was our last day at the Loma Fire. With activity slow on the fire itself, the most interesting event was the community information forum in the evening, where all the public agencies involved in the response discussed what happened with local citizens and listened to their concerns.

It was great to see this, because we're embarking on a new initiative called the Citizen Responder Project, which aims to empower citizens to better help each other in emergencies through use of information technology and social media (more on that in future posts). This fire may become our first case study.

The forum started with several presentations explaining things like how the fire progressed, which roads were closed and why, and how the evacuation warning was sent out using the county's reverse 911 system.

A CAL FIRE representative talks about the history of fires in the area. The Loma Fire is in red and the 2008 Summit Fire is in yellow. (It was neat to see this map, as I was in the GIS trailer when Joe Larson was preparing it.)

Then there was a wide ranging open discussion. Some residents were very expressive about not liking road closures that kept them away from their homes. Very calm professional responses from the presenters kept that thread from getting out of hand.

The part that interested me the most was a discussion of how citizens could stay informed. The people who listened to the radio complained about the quality of information. For example, one woman spent an extra hour driving home because she couldn't figure out which roads were closed. Most media reports were targeted at audiences outside the community and left out the details local residents care about most.

Other residents said that their local Facebook friends were the best source of information. Alex Leman's Loma Prieta Fire Twitter feed was also mentioned as a good way to keep up. Somebody asked how they could stay updated when they were away from home, and the advice was to call a neighbor who's always on the computer. Other communication methods were brought up, like a call center to answer questions or a physical bulletin board for official postings. It was interesting to see how different residents had different levels of comfort with official vs. informal channels, which seems to be related to computer literacy and level of social involvement in the community.

Loma Prieta Fire Chief and Community Emergency Response Team organizer Alex Leman (top left) tells citizens how they can get involved in response.

At the end of the evening I talked to a few of the presenters and got some business cards, so as soon as we figure out what questions to ask we should be able to follow up with them to get more impressions of their experience with this response. The forum was a great wrap-up to our involvement in this fire.

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