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Public Safety

As Flames Get Running Start, Region’s Disaster Resources Face Early Glitches

Volunteer Michelle Mendoza answers calls at the 211 San Diego disaster call center, Dec. 8, 2017.
Megan Burks
Volunteer Michelle Mendoza answers calls at the 211 San Diego disaster call center, Dec. 8, 2017.

As flames raced through the north county, San Diego County residents took to Twitter and KPBS phone lines to report error messages and dropped calls from the region’s two main disaster information resources, Alert San Diego and 211 San Diego.

The county’s emergency services director, Holly Crawford, said the Alert San Diego registration website was overloaded and down for some San Diegans as 40,000 others logged on to register for the system’s evacuation notifications.

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She said the county immediately responded to those who reported difficulties and took other precautions.

“Mass notification systems are really just one tool in the toolbox,” Crawford said. “We still have door-to-door with Sheriff’s deputies and loudspeakers telling people to evacuate. And we want people to pay attention and, if there’s a fire close by, if there’s smoke in the air and you feel unsafe, we want people to be proactive and to self-evacuate and not wait for an official notification.”

A screen at 211 San Diego's disaster call center shows a wait time of four seconds, Dec. 8, 2017.
Megan Burks
A screen at 211 San Diego's disaster call center shows a wait time of four seconds, Dec. 8, 2017.

The nonprofit information line, 211, was also overloaded Thursday as calls shot up 900 percent. John Ohanian, the president and CEO of 211, said some phone calls failed because of the high volume of calls. He reminded people to call only if they are impacted by the fire, not just curious about acreage, for example.

“It’s really people who are receiving that information and have questions about it and are saying, ‘I don’t quite understand what this means or how it impacts me,’” Ohanian said. “We’ve had seniors that say they don’t feel comfortable driving at night or individuals that are wondering what actually is the best route for them to go. So at that moment, with another human who’s looking at the facts and is a little more relaxed and can help them navigate, we can walk them through that situation.”

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More than 500 people have volunteered with the organization to field questions from evacuees and worried residents, bringing call wait times down to seconds compared to minutes early Thursday.

Ohanian said he’s working with the nonprofit’s phone vendor to find out why there wasn’t more capacity for calls. But he and Crawford say their systems are now in working order.

San Diego County, in a tweet, says 211 San Diego "has taken 8,500 calls on #lilacfire. The average wait time today has been less than a minute."

Both are credited with freeing up 911 lines for life-and-death emergencies, and for streamlining disaster evacuations in the area. The county purchased its Alert San Diego system shortly after the 2003 wildfires when there were 15 deaths and 56,000 evacuations. During the 2007 wildfires, with the help of Alert San Diego, deaths fell to 7 and half a million people were evacuated.

RELATED: San Diego Firefighters Amass New Technology To Prep For Wildfires

Crawford said the county sent 100,000 alerts Thursday and Friday. That includes some redundancies, as many people are signed up for alerts on multiple phones.

And the county used an additional tool for the first time this week. All 3.2 million people in the region received Wireless Emergency Alerts, a federal system typically used for Amber Alerts, with a warning about the fire danger.

Crawford said it’s an effective tool to put the entire region on alert, but can’t be geo-targeted for evacuations like Ready San Diego alerts.

RELATED: How To Help In The Aftermath Of Lilac Wildfire

Continued Santa Ana winds and low humidity are expected to keep the fire risk high through the weekend. Ohanian said 211 welcomes as many volunteers as possible. And Crawford said anyone who signs up for Alert San Diego notifications can expect to start receiving them almost immediately if they are in an impacted area. And she reminded people to update their address in the system if they have moved.

CalFire also offers mobile fire alerts.