San Diego County Releases After Action Report for 2014 May Firestorm

File Photo, Aurora Fire

File Photo, Aurora Fire

June 22, 2014 (San Diego) San Diego County has released the after action report of the 2014 fire storm. In it there is not just a report of what worked, but what still needs work. After action reports are extremely valuable tools since they tend to identify the weak points of the response, good points and extremely good things. This report is no exception.

There are technical items in the report that will not matter to most of us, but there are items in the report that do. First, keeping citizens informed. The County developed an app, readysandiego ( This app was developed after the 2007 fires as a response to the our ever more mobile life style. The app was put to the test during the 2014 fires.

According to the report, the App performed well, and:

“The May 2014 San Diego County Wildfires was the first major incident to fully realize the capabilities of the SD Emergency App. The App was utilized to provide real-time emergency public information such as fire updates, an emergency map with evacuation areas and fire perimeters,and locations of temporary evacuation points, shelters, and the Recovery Liaison Office.”

As a user of the App, I can attest to this. I kept myself informed of much of what was going on with it. I have used it in other earlier incidents, but during the fires it proved invaluable. There were technical issues with it, such as not staying updated throughout the incident, but that was identified and will be solved during the summer months.

The County Emergency website also performed very well, unlike 2007, when it crashed. The reason was the scalability of the site. Also what the County report refers as on the cloud management, which allows updating of the site anywhere there is access to the net.

This could prove a weakness as well, depending on how open the credentials are. The County had a small problem with mapping on the site, which was a small hack. They were able to deal with it.

The Reverse 911 system also worked well, but the effort to expand services to non land line use, such as Voice over IP and cellphones continues. That said, the system worked, and please do register your cell phone with the system.

I also found that Nixle, not mentioned in the report, worked extremely well as well. I understand that it was likely a backup, but the San Diego Sheriffs Office used it extensively.

What the report shows of the reach is impressive though. According to it:

“During the May 2014 fires, AlertSanDiego was used by law enforcement agencies, including theSan Diego County Sheriff’s Department and cities, to issue evacuation orders, warnings and repopulation notices. In total, approximately 121,000 individuals were asked to evacuate their homes in evacuation campaigns initiated by the San Diego County Sheriff and the cities of SanDiego, Escondido, and Carlsbad.”

But the most remarkable part of the report are both the increased capacities using air firefighting and firefighting in general. According to the report, at one point the County Fire Authority used:

3 fire engines sent to the fires
13 water tenders sent to the fires
13 fire engines staffed and responding to local fires in their communities
4 additional water tenders staffed in stations if needed
5 reserve engines moved to CAL FIRE stations to backfill
1 water tender staffed by Lakeside Fire Protection District sent to the fires
1 engine and 1 water tender staffed in Julian to backfill
36 SDCFA volunteers who served shifts, in addition to normal duty

This is a critical point made by the report as well:

Unincorporated communities were covered by SDCFA engines and water tenders during these fires. Five CALFIRE station engines sent to the fires were backfilled with San Diego County Fire Authority engines.

This provided a surge capability that did not exist before. There have also been other changes. In 2003 fire units from one fire department could not talk with others from another . This was a problem, since there was little coordination. That was a lesson learned from 2003 and now every shares the same radio systems and can talk with each other.

Another lesson from 2007 was the lack of uniformity of training. The County Fire Authority has solved some of those issues. There are other issues, but that was part of the solution. In the coming years this capability should only improve. As far as spending in firefighting, the report reveals something of interest in one of the footnotes:

In the unincorporated area of San Diego County (495,281 residents), the combined expenditures of all responding local agencies is approximately $111 million per year, and CAL FIRE expends an additional $25 million per year in San Diego County for their statutory wildland fire mission. This equates to $224 per resident in local expenditures per year, and when including CAL FIRE, is $275 per resident expenditures per year. The national average for fire department spending, as reported in 2010 by the International City/County Management Association, is $164 per resident. A survey of other Southern California counties showed per resident spending of between $190 per resident and $234 per resident.

This is the kind of valuable information in the report and reveals just how much the Fire Service has become a priority for the current Board of Supervisors.

In 2003 we almost had no air fire fighting capability. During the 2014 fires at one point the County had over 30 aircraft fighting the fire.

Four Air Attack Command and Control aircraft
Eight fixed wing Airtankers
Two United States Forest Service Lead Planes
Thirteen civilian helicopters
Thirty military helicopters (Navy and Marine Corps)

All these are tightly coordinated and there are memoranda of understanding that are unique to the County between the United States Navy, and the United States Marine Corp, which allow the use of military assets faster than they would be otherwise. This is not the first fire where we see them, just the first major fire. Two years ago, during the Vallecitos Complex fire that affected, among others, the community of Ranchita, military aircraft were used to fight those fires.

The County is also facing another challenge. This is the use of Drones by civilians, as well as social media. The social media operation by the County is not just getting stronger, but has been highlighted as an important area that needs expansion. As a former emergency responder, this is what is referred as rumor control. This is critical and the county is trying hard to get ahead of it. We at the San Diego Monitor expect this to just get worst, before it gets better. Social media is both a tool and a very sharp knife, but this is recognized by County Office of Emergency Management as a priority.

Though the County is considering buying a third fire fighting helicopter, that will serve as a ready spare, or a surge during a major incident. The County is also considering expanding the budget for contract on call aircraft during Red Flag Conditions from $250,000 to $750,000.

The After Action report offers a view on how emergency services have become much stronger since 2003, but it also reveals points of weakness. One of the areas identified is still contacting vulnerable populations who are monolingual in other languages but English. Given the number of immigrant populations, over thirty languages, as well as medically fragile populations, this will be a challenge that will continue for years to come.


Categories: 2014 san diego firestorm

1 reply

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