Report: Communications lagged in the first days of the Angora fire |

Report: Communications lagged in the first days of the Angora fire

Chuck Dickson, lead information officer with Federal Incident Management Team 1, addresses the media on Tuesday afternoon's press conference. More than 50 media outlets from across the country have descended upon South Lake Tahoe, Calif., to cover the Angora Fire. (AP Photo/Nevada Appeal,Chad Lundquist)

Just over two weeks after the Angora fire was fully contained on July 1, a panel of representatives from the agencies involved with the emergency response to the disaster convened to review their effectiveness.

Their goal was two-fold: to reinforce aspects of the response that went well, while taking a look at what could be improved.

Notes from the review, released late last week, describe the response to El Dorado County’s largest disaster as going “exceptionally well.”

Evacuations organized by the El Dorado County Sheriff’s Office and California Highway Patrol were noted as being especially successful, a finding reinforced by the lack of deaths or traumatic injuries during the fire.

But a faster implementation of a joint information center, to coordinate more than a dozen agencies spread across all levels of government taking part in the emergency response, would have been helpful in the initial stages of the Angora fire, according to Marty Hackett, a lieutenant with the El Dorado County’s Sheriff’s Office who is also in charge of the county’s Office of Emergency Services.

Such a center facilitates communications between agencies as well as with the news media.

“What we found was that we really needed to have representatives who can speak for their agencies be present, who have a front-line role in this,” Hackett said on Friday.

With the fire starting on a Sunday afternoon, the joint information center was in the works on Monday, but was not up and running until Tuesday, according to the lieutenant.

The rapid implementation of an information center would aid communication and decision-making among emergency responders during a future disaster.

Also, memorandum of understanding, which would allow trained individuals from agencies a certain degree of freedom to speak for other agencies that are stretched thin, would also be helpful, Hackett said.

Emergencies such as the Angora fire require a level of “depth” not necessarily available from local resources who may be directly affected by a disaster or exhausted by dealing with day-to-day emergencies on top of a disaster scenario.

The review will act as an aid for disaster planners locally and elsewhere, according to Hackett. It is a “living document” and assessment of the response to the Angora fire will be ongoing, Hackett said.

A follow-up report on the improvements is due by May 2008, but the El Dorado County Sheriff’s Office expected the actual improvements to be completed sooner.

“Progress has already started on all these things on the list,” Hackett said.

“We’re going to implement these things before the next fire season or sooner.”

One aspect of the response to the fire that was not discussed during the interagency review is the response of California Highway Patrol dispatchers.

Two CHP dispatchers in the agency’s Truckee center initially dismissed 911 calls about a fire on the south rim of Lake Tahoe — saying it was a controlled burn — and causing a seven-to-nine-minute delay in the response, according to recordings of the 911 calls.

Capt. Gary Ross, commander of the CHP field office in Truckee, said in July that their dismissals caused a delayed response to the fire.

The dispatchers also did not follow CHP policy, in which they are instructed to keep callers on the line and transfer them to a local fire department in such situations. Instead, they let the callers hang up.

Last week, the investigation into the matter was continuing, but was expected to wrap up soon, said CHP Assistant Chief Michael Champion.

“We have made no definitive conclusions,” Champion said.

Most 911 calls from cell phones go directly to the CHP, which has its nearest dispatch center in Truckee.

Those calls were not associated with calls received at the police and fire dispatch center in South Lake Tahoe.

Emergency Response Improvement Action Plan:

Press Information Officer (PIO)

• Establish a (PIO) group for the South Lake Tahoe Basin that consists of representatives from each of the key first-responder agencies. Have this group meet regularly.

• Create a paging system to alert the PIO group for activation.

• Identify locations where a Joint Information Center (JIC) can be established.

• Include Spanish and other necessary foreign language interpreters.

• Include information on pet retrieval.

Joint Information Center (JIC)

• Activate immediately, with each agency involved making a commitment to send a PIO representative.

• Assemble memoranda of understanding (MOU’s) with other agencies that permit them to speak on your agency’s behalf in the event your agency is severely impacted by the disaster event, and incapable of filling the PIO function.

Law Enforcement Fire Training, Equipment, and Communications

• Provide law enforcement officers training in fire behavior and safety.

• Provide law enforcement personnel and volunteers with personal protective equipment and training on how to use the equipment.

Medical Services

• Assemble contingency plans for handling medic calls if firefighters need help.

Emergency Operations Center (EOC) Fire Representation

• Have a dedicated fire representative in the EOC for gathering intelligence and providing technical expertise for planning issues.

Fire Incident Command Post (ICP)

• Getting the Fire ICP established early on would help centralize decision-making and improve communication and coordination.

South Lake Tahoe Emergency Operations Center

• Assemble a call-down list for all agencies that have an active role in the EOC. Include public utilities representatives, Barton Hospital, Salvation Army and others in this list.

• Obtain training opportunities for those who will work in an EOC.

• Consider utilizing conference calls and video systems to reach a larger number of agencies during EOC briefing reports.

• Include utility companies and their operational goals in the Incident Action Plan.

Source: Angora Fire After-Action Review Briefing

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