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Who’s Responsible For Alerting The Public During An Emergency In San Diego?

One of the largest wildfires in San Diego this year sent plumes of black smoke over East County. Eight people were evacuated from a mountaintop cabin and two hikers were air lifted from the flames. It briefly threatened a few structures and received a lot of attention from the public. It had some people asking who's responsible for alerting and informing the public during an emergency.


Aired 8/25/10

One of the largest wildfires in San Diego this year sent plumes of black smoke over East County. It briefly threatened a few structures and received a lot of attention from the public. It had some people asking who's responsible for alerting and informing the public during an emergency.

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DWANE BROWN (Morning Edition host): The fire near Lakeside was on County property. So does the County play a role in notifying neighbors during situations like this?

SUSAN MURPHY (KPBS reporter): The County Office of Emergency Services, OES, coordinates the overall response to major disasters. OES is responsible for alerting and notifying appropriate agencies when disasters strike. They also have a website where people can go for emergency information and tips on how to prepare for fires, earthquakes and other disasters.

BROWN: So why didn't OES notify the public immediately during last weekend's fire?

MURPHY: When the fire broke out, OES says they evaluated it, they received updates from Cal Fire that the fire was not threatening any structures. So they didn't post an immediate alert to the OES website because they say there was no action that the public needed to take. They say they focus on sending precautionary information rather than acting as a source for news.

BROWN - But they did end up sending a message three-and-a-half hours later. Why post anything at all?

MURPHY: I spoke to Tammy Glenn with OES, she told me the plume of smoke was getting a lot of public and media attention so they posted some information about the fire. I asked her, "why not just post something to the web site immediately?" Here's what she had to say:

"There wasn't anything we needed to tell the public. During this fire there certainly was a lot of smoke to see, but it wasn't a county emergency, there was not life or structures threatened. There was no precautionary action that people needed to take," said Glenn.

BROWN: So when does OES step in to provide information to the public?

MURPHY: The emergency situation has to rise to a certain level when local jurisdictions can no longer handle the situation. Here's what Glenn says about the guidelines:

"It's always a case by case basis, that's the thing, said Glenn. "What stands true for a particular fire may not be true for the next fire. It's always a judgment call. We're working with the experts, we're working with whoever has the jurisdiction on the fire."

DWANE BROWN - So where should we turn for information during an emergency?

SUSAN MURPHY: I think it's important to note that the County steps up when local agencies are overwhelmed during a disaster. A lot of local agencies have adopted social media sites to get the word out, including some of the County's partners, like Cal Fire also provided twitter updates during last weekends wildfires.

SUSAN MURPHY: As we remember from the 2007 wildfires, the County told each of us to prepare to survive on our own for at least 72 hours after a major disaster strikes whether its a fire, earthquake or some other major disaster.

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Avatar for user 'scoculk'

scoculk | August 25, 2010 at 7:38 a.m. ― 6 years, 6 months ago

In an effort to keep our citizens informed on news and more importantly, current events, our fire district has established an information "blog." We endeavor to update it as soon as feasible during ongoing emergencies.

The initial response to the (El) Monte fire was from our agency and our units worked the fire in conjunction with state and federal resources. One of our blog editors posted and updated information soon after the fire started. The traffic to our blog (and our district website) during the fire was phenomenal. Obviously, our citizens were hungry for information about the incident.

We believe we are leaders with this type of technology. We also feed Twitter and Facebook with the blog info.

Feel free to check out our post on the Monte fire and any others of interest.

Best Regards,

Scott Culkin
Lakeside Fire Protection District
Lakeside, CA

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Avatar for user 'Susan Murphy'

Susan Murphy, KPBS Staff | August 25, 2010 at 8:47 a.m. ― 6 years, 6 months ago

Captain Culkin - Thank you very much for this valuable information!

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Avatar for user 'ECMeditor'

ECMeditor | October 14, 2010 at 10:50 p.m. ― 6 years, 4 months ago

Sign up at for free Viejas Wildfire & Emergency Alerts. We DID alert people to this fire far earlier than anyone else, as far as I've heard from readers who live in Lakeside. Our nonprofit publication's free alerts come via e-mail to reach people even if phone lines burn down. We don't limit notification to very narrow zip codes or partial zips; for a major fast-moving regional wildfire such as this, we notify our full list to help people prepare.

You can also following ViejasAlerts on Twitter for shorter text messages on your mobile device.

We took a poll asking if our readers would like to see the County post updates on breaking emergencies on its website, by the way. 99% said yes, so clearly the public does NOT believe the County is doing an adequate job of notification on recent fires or the April earthquake, which was never reported on the County's so-called emergency website.

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