County Disaster Management Deemed 'Satisfactory'

Draft Report Details Thomas Fire, 1/9 Debris Flow

The county’s Office of Emergency Management and its director, Rob Lewin, faced intense criticism for the confusing evacuation warnings it sent out before and during the 1/9 Debris Flow. A new report recommends ways the department can improve its public communication methods.

Paul Wellman

The county’s Office of Emergency Management and its director, Rob Lewin, faced intense criticism for the confusing evacuation warnings it sent out before and during the 1/9 Debris Flow. A new report recommends ways the department can improve its public communication methods.

An assessment of the performance of the county’s Office of Emergency Management (OEM) during the Thomas Fire and the 1/9 Debris Flow, in which 23 people were killed, found the response of the department and its partner agencies to be overall “satisfactory.” The state-mandated After Action Report (AAR), carried out by an Illinois-based consulting firm hired by the OEM and still in draft form, also pinpointed a number of lessons learned.

Among the “primary strengths” of the OEM during the twin disasters, the report states, were “robust information sharing” within its information center; the distribution of “relevant and timely” maps to the public; the establishment of a call center “to increase situational awareness”; and the “execution of a robust public health response.”

The department’s “opportunities for improvement” were, among others, to “formalize and socialize” evacuation planning; to “refine and enhance” emergency public information and warnings; and to increase collaboration with local government partners. The AAR makes 54 specific recommendations involving planning, training, personnel, and equipment. It can be read in full below.

Only obliquely referenced in the report were the multiple instances of communication failures from the OEM to Montecito residents ahead of and during the deadly debris flow. The results of an ongoing public study conducted by Alabama researchers have found that residents were confused by the department’s conflicting warnings and unclear language. The AAR makes no mention of the 23 lives lost during the debris flow, nor the fact that 19 of the victims lived in a “voluntary” evacuation zone.

County spokesperson Gina DePinto said the county and the OEM welcomes the “AAR process as it gives us touch points to improve upon.” She said the study was expedited to ensure improvements were identified and made before this winter season, and that a separate report on alerting and communications will be presented to the board of Supervisors in October. The board will discuss the final draft of the AAR at its meeting on October 16.