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Volume 32, Issue 1

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Worst Wildfires in California History Prove Valuable Lesson for Continuity Planners


Emergency responders and continuity planners had their hands full when nearly a dozen wildfires erupted in California during mid-October. Strong Santa Ana winds and record heat combined in mid-October to ignite overgrown brush and thick timber and send thousands of people from their homes and businesses.
The fast-moving flames destroyed 740,000 acres, burned nearly 3,600 buildings, and killed 22, including one firefighter.

Planners at businesses in the fire zones rushed to implement continuity plans, while emergency responders dealt with the worst outbreak of wildfires in the state’s history. In total, more than 2,000 firefighters and hundreds of medical personnel battled the blazes. More than 50 businesses were burned or damaged, with hundreds more on guard as the erratic fires threatened the smoke-filled area.

The largest fire, known as the Cedar Fire, was located in the Cleveland National Forest in Southern San Diego County. The fire, which began Oct. 25 and wasn’t contained until Nov. 4, was responsible for 15 of the deaths and destroyed nearly 300,000 acres. At one point, the fire was burning more than 6,000 acres per hour. It is the worst wildfire in California history.

President George W. Bush declared five counties in Southern California as disaster areas because of the widespread destruction. The declaration paved the way for low-interest loans and federal assistance to residents and businesses. As of mid-November, the Small Business Administration had distributed some $22 million in loans in the Southern California region.

While the road to recovery is under way, so is the evaluation of the disaster. Many businesses are now examining their continuity plans to see what worked and what did not. At the same time, residents and officials are analyzing the emergency response to the fires. In both cases, lessons learned will result in procedural changes and better handling of such situations in the future.





Emergency Response to Wildfires Questioned

Residents in San Diego County have raised numerous questions about the response to the fires, especially the Cedar Fire. Complaints have included lack of equipment, slow response, inadequate warnings and poor communication.

“There’s a distinct amount of anger, fear, confusion and concern,” San Diego County Supervisor Dianne Jacob said in an Associated Press report.

Many are calling for an updated warning system and for consolidation of San Diego County’s fire district. Currently, more than 50 agencies serve the county, making communication between emergency personnel difficult.

Other criticisms include the lack of air support and the regulations involved in putting firefighting planes in the air.
Firefighters defend their actions in a report released on Nov. 7, 2003.

“More than 300 firefighters were on the [Cedar] fire lines within two hours the first night, Oct. 25,” U.S. Forest Service Chief Rich Hawkins told a San Diego newspaper. “I stand by the decisions our incident commanders made. I don’t think we made mistakes in that first eight hours.”

A five-member fact-finding team, consisting of officials from the Forest Service, the California Department of Forestry and the Los Angeles County Fire Department, compiled the report.
Several other commissions have been set up statewide to examine the details and evaluate the response to all the wildfires. One such task force, established by San Diego officials, will review, discuss and develop recommendations for fire prevention.

“It is clear the city and county need to ensure that our emergency preparedness is at a maximum, not just for fire but for all emergencies,” said San Diego Mayor Dick Murphy in a San Diego Union Tribune report. “This task force will get the professionals together outside of the realm of politics to make sure we are prepared.”

Dr. Thomas Phelan, president of Strategic Teaching Association Inc., stressed that involvement in training with local emergency responders can alleviate much of the confusion associated with working with multiple resources.

“Businesses need to be involved in training,” he said. “This type of partnership goes a long way.”

Communications Systems Examined and Implemented

A main focus of the task forces is the communication problems that were discovered during the wildfire.
According to the San Diego Union Tribune, mismatched radio systems left U.S. Forest Service crews unable to talk to their counterparts during the wildfires. Some firefighters resorted to using store-bought, hand-held radio devices to communicate. In San Diego city, dead batteries in radios were reported, as was overused cellular telephone channels.

The area may gain some relief through a joint project under way in the Justice and Treasury departments to promote “seamless, coordinated and integrated public safety communications” at every level of government. The project is called the Public Safety Wireless Network. Its director, Tim Ritter, is scheduled to visit San Diego to determine what the county needs to link radio communications together more efficiently.

“San Diego County’s regional communication system has a pretty good core working group,” Ritter said in an interview with a San Diego newspaper. “I know they’re close to a solution. We hope to have it in place by January or February.”

For some agencies, the wildfires offered an opportunity to test new communications technology. The Disaster Medical Assistance Team, which provides medical care onsite during disasters, was able to implement a new notification system to call team members into action.

David Lipin, unit commander for California Unit 6, described the group as a “civilian version of a MASH group.” The DMAT units treated thousands of injuries on scene at various fire camps and shelters throughout Southern California.

The group is assembled via a notification process. During the wildfires, an automated notification system was employed which allowed the formerly manual process to be reduced from more than six hours to less than an hour.

“For the wildfires, all California DMAT units joined together to create one large pool,” explained Lipin. “We used the new technology to call across the state to find available staff and supplies.”
DMAT members also used the notification tool to rotate crews in and out of the fire camps.

Lipin said available resources were stretched due to the magnitude of the fires. “We didn’t see any dramatic safety issues because of the lack of resources, but the resources that were available were really hard pressed.”
He credited the new notification system with helping his team pull together quickly to aid the battle in whatever way they could.

“DMAT was there to help,” he said.

Continuity Planners Face Tough Decisions

While emergency responders were battling the blazes, continuity planners were busy ensuring the safety of their companies and employees.

“When considering building fires as a threat, planners must pay particular attention to a couple of specific components of the procedures – salvaging vital records, backup of data on desktop workstations, offsite storage rotation and obviously evacuation procedures,” said Damian Walch, vice president of consulting for T-Systems.
“Typically most companies in the area were activating their emergency operation centers, if they had them,” said Judy Bell, CEM of Disaster Survival Planning Network.

Bell listed several common concerns that should be included in a company’s continuity plan when dealing with a crisis of this magnitude.

One is to consider the unexpected. In this case, air quality became an issue for many companies who otherwise were out of the paths of the destruction.

“This represented a unique situation that we don’t normally see,” said Bell.
The smoky air caused the closing of several commercial and retail sites. Shirley Ono, manager of business continuity for Macy’s Department Stores, said several of their stores in the San Diego area were closed intermittently due to the smoke.

Ono said the safety of customers and employees was a factor in deciding to close the stores.
Another consideration for contingency planners is that many employees were also facing crises at their homes.

Bell said companies should always plan for this type of situation.

“You need to have a plan in place to allow employees to leave,” said Bell. “CEOs I talked with were all telling their employees to go home and make sure their families were safe.”
She said that most managers found once the home situations were settled, employees were eager to return to their jobs if they were able.

“In a crisis situation such as this, people long for routine and normalcy as much as possible,” said Bell. “That is why it is important for businesses to stay open. It helps the employee as well as the company. Staying viable helps everyone get back to business.”

Ono said Macy’s had several employees who were out due to the fires, but the company had planned for such a situation, so it wasn’t a problem.

Planning professionals should consider that the crisis might affect a key player in the implementation of the continuity plans. In one case, according to Bell, a key manager lost his home in the wildfires. He was not able to assist his company during their evacuation.

“There were key issues at work that needed a decision and he was not available,” she said. “Companies need to designate an alternate decision-maker for every role.”

Macy’s had a similar situation. When the wildfires erupted, store managers were off site at a training session. The company was prepared though, and regional directors stepped in to make the key decisions.

“They did a great job,” said Ono about the regional team, which consisted of the heads of the operations, loss prevention and human resources departments.

She listed two components that helped the company stay successful during the crisis. One was that Macy’s tests their plans often. In fact, she said, a comprehensive test had been completed in July that reiterated to the department heads what their roles would be in a disaster.

The other was that the company kept well informed of the status of the fires and relayed that information to their employees.

Both Bell and Ono stressed the importance of keeping employees informed during a test and especially during a crisis.

“There needs to be someone in charge to disseminate information,” said Bell. “This should be decided well in advance of a situation.”

In Macy’s case, an Internet Web site and an 800 telephone number were used to reach employees and keep them informed of store closings and other changes.

During the wildfire crisis, continuity planners also dealt with safe evacuation of businesses, delays in shipping services, and interruptions to air travel service.

Limited access to facilities was another dilemma that some companies faced and is an issue that needs addressed during regional disasters.

“A business needs to understand that its own planning must include an incident ‘in the neighborhood,’” said Phelan.

“They may find their facilities, though not directly affected, inaccessible due to perimeters set by emergency response agencies. All businesses need to consider the possibility of having to operate from an alternate site in certain emergencies.”

Working with emergency responders becomes critical when planning for a widespread disaster such as the fires.

“People need to talk to the local authorities before a crisis and make sure they know the appropriate items that will be needed to gain access to a site,” said Bell. “This is where the private/public partnership becomes key. We need to use our resources and connect with the authorities to get proper information.”

Phelan said programs such as BNet’s Corporate Emergency Access System, currently in Buffalo and New York City, is an example of those designed to deal with getting essential business employees inside the perimeter, if safe. Companies should investigate their area for similar programs.

Lessons Learned Strengthens Preparedness Efforts

Emergency responders and contingency planners will study the lessons learned from the California wildfire outbreak in the months and years to come.

“Having just experienced the worst fire in county and state history, it’s clear that there are things we can do to be better prepared for future disasters,” said Greg Cox, San Diego Board of Supervisors Chair, in a published report.

“Working together, we can make changes that will do more to save lives and property.”

Business continuity planners learned many lessons during the fire as well. For some, preparedness is a long way off; for others the fires proved that continuity plans do work.

“As a company, we have definitely progressed with our business continuity plans,” said Ono about Macy’s preparedness efforts. “It feels good to know that we have come such a long way.”

Janette Ballman has served as an editor with Disaster Recovery Journal since 1991. She has reported on numerous disasters and business continuity issues during that time. Ballman received a journalism degree from Mississippi University for Women in 1989.


Notification Systems Keep Medical Teams Informed


One of the critical issues facing business continuity planners, crisis managers, and recovery specialists today is the ability to communicate immediately with key personnel required to respond to emergencies or mission-critical events. Ineffective emergency communication methods – such as call tree processes – are now being replaced with more efficient and effective communication technologies that get mission-critical information to and from thousands of individuals located anywhere, at any time. Not only can mission-critical information be broadcasted out, but all the recipients can respond to critical event notifications automatically within minutes. In some instances, where immediate conferencing is required by executives or management, users can instantly bridge key respondents into a conference call.


During the recent California wildfires, California’s Disaster Medical Assistance Team (DMATCA-6) responded to the fires using an automated notification system. While thousands of firefighters battled the out-of-control blazes, DMATCA-6 sent notifications to their medical assistance teams to tell them when and where to report for medical assistance. Once received, the DMATCA-6 team members were able to respond immediately to the notifications via their landlines, cell phones, pagers, or e-mails. Instant real-time reporting enabled the team to plan the deployment quickly by assessing who is available and what skills were needed.

Nationwide, disaster medical assistance teams are now automating their outdated manual notification processes and significantly reducing the time it takes to contact each and every one of their team members with important information. In emergency situations, rapid response and dispatch is of paramount importance. Using notification services, DMAT teams were able to quickly and interactively reach their team of volunteers anywhere and on any of their communication devices.

Frank Mahdavi is the chief technology officer for MIR3, Inc. (www.mir3.com). Mahdavi’s longstanding career in techology and aerospace includes Peregrine Systems, McDonnell Douglas/Boeing, Northrop Grumman, Rockwell International and NASA. Mahdavi holds a B.S. and M.S. in aeronautical engineering from California Polytechnics State University and an MBA from the University of Southern California.