Facing strong criticisms, county officials said they do not know why the Contra Costa County community warning system took up to three hours to call local residents with a shelter-in-place warning after Monday's Chevron refinery fire began spewing a large plume over many neighborhoods.
During —initiated by Chevron to address community concerns in the wake of the five-hour fire that has caused more than 1,700 people to go to local hospitals with respiratory and other complaints—many members of the public criticized the warning system as slow and ineffective.
Richmond City Councilman Tom Butt echoed those criticisms in an email on Tuesday, in which he compared Monday’s incident to the 2007 Chevron refinery fire, when he and many other residents expressed outrage that the warning system did not start its phone calls until more than an hour after the fire began.
“This is reminiscent of the confusion that reigned during the 2007 fire at Chevron," he said in the email. "All those problems were supposed to have been fixed, but they persist."
Katherine Hern, manager of the county’s community warning system, said approximately 20,000 calls—to a combination of landlines and cellphones—were made on Monday night to warn citizens to shelter in place in Richmond, North Richmond and San Pablo.
Though the system began making calls shortly after the fire started at 6:30 p.m., it was not until three hours later that the last of the 20,000 calls was finished.
“That’s a problem which we’re going to have to look into—why is the phone system so slow?” said Dr. Wendel Brunner, Director of Public Health for Contra Costa Health Services.
Hern explained in an interview on Wednesday that the community warning system uses an independent vendor, CityWatch, to make the automated phone calls.
She said she is not sure what caused the delay, and that the county will work with CityWatch to examine the data from Monday to determine the cause.
One possible reason, Hern said, is that the phone line network was overloaded with all the calls, so that even if CityWatch had the ability to make the calls faster, the existing infrastructure would not allow for it.
Hern, who was part of the panel at Tuesday’s meeting, emphasized that the issues with the phone calls demonstrate why the county relies on more than just one method to alert residents to an emergency.
Sirens, which sound every half hour, social media and press releases are all additional ways the county spreads emergency information, she said.
But Some Richmond residents who spoke on Tuesday said they never received any kind of warning from the county about the fire or the shelter-in-place order. Instead, they heard the news from concerned relatives or friends.
One woman in the audience of more than 500 people shouted, “I got no phone call, I got no siren, I got no answers.”
Hern stressed that part of the responsibility falls on residents to make an effort to understand how they can receive alerts and how emergency information is disseminated.
“No matter how well the system is designed or tested or operated on a daily basis, it is only as effective as what you understand as how it’s supposed to work or not work,” Hern told the audience at the meeting.
This was met with some shouts and boos from audience members who said it was the county’s job to make sure everyone is alerted to an emergency.
A dysfunctional system
Richmond City Councilman Tom Butt shared residents’ frustration with the community warning system.
“The Community Warning System once again failed to function adequately,” he wrote to constituents and others on his email list.
Butt described his experience Monday night at his Point Richmond home. He said received a call on his cell phone at 6:46 p.m., but didn’t receive a call on his home phone until 9:30 p.m.
He added that he continued getting messages on both phones “every hour after that, waking me up,” until the all clear at 12:50 a.m.
In his email, Butt included excerpts from emails he said he received from others. Butt said these emails “testify to the slow warning, misinformation, lack of information and general confusion caused by a dysfunctional warning system.”
The email excerpts in Butt’s message indicated that some of people received emergency calls early, some received them late, and some received calls that stopped when the message was only partway done.
Who received phone calls?
Several non-Richmond residents said they received calls from the community warning system on Monday.
El Cerrito resident Denise Sangster said she got a call at about 6:40 p.m. that gave the shelter-in-place warning. Sangster, who had been about to walk her dogs, said she closed her doors and windows, and turned on the news to learn more.
Sangster said that after the 2007 refinery fire, she registered both her cell phone and house phone on the community warning system website .
On Wednesday, Hern explained that Sangster and other non-Richmond residents had received calls because they had registered their numbers with the system under certain ZIP codes.
When a resident registers a phone number with the community warning system, they can select one or more ZIP codes to associate the number with.
Hern said that when an emergency at the refinery happens, the community warning system is preprogrammed to call all landlines in a specific area. This area is predetermined by vicinity to the refinery and historical experience.
The majority of the 20,000 calls made on Monday went to landlines in that area, Hern said. The remainder of the calls went to numbers that residents had registered, which were associated with ZIP codes in proximity with that area.
“There is a little bit more spillover with the ZIP codes,” she said. “So it’s very possible for someone to get it on their cell phone who may not be immediately affected.”
Areas affected by the smoke
Many Richmond residents at Tuesday’s meeting said they suffered respiratory irritation, and county officials said the smoke also moved out over other cities as well.
“It did land other places,” said Randy Sawyer of Contra Costa Health Services after the meeting. “We know it hit Martinez, we know people in the Oakland Hills had it, and El Cerrito was complaining about it.”
But areas other than Richmond, North Richmond, and San Pablo did not have shelter-in-place orders. Health advisories were issued for some areas, including El Cerrito and the North Oakland Hills, suggesting that residents stay indoors if they had preexisting respiratory problems or felt uncomfortable.
“You have to make some kinds of judgment calls,” said Brunner. “The next day, once you have all of the data, it’s easier to figure out where it should have been done. But we try to be conservative.”
Brunner said that after warning system made the first 20,000 calls, the county could have called more residents. But because the first set of calls took almost three hours, he said it did not make sense to continue calls at that rate.
Some residents in El Cerrito and Kensington who did not receive phone calls still found out about the emergency from neighbors or the Kensington Police Department.
Sangster said after she received the call, she sent out a message to the almost 800 people on the Arlington Neighbors email list to inform people.
Richmond residents at Tuesday’s meeting shared similar stories of spreading the word, and Hern said neighborly actions like that are necessary to the success of the warning system.
Improvements in the future
Hern said her job is to be working every day to improve the community warning system, and events like those on Monday help bring to light specific problems in the system.
In addition to looking into the reason for the delay in phone calls, Hern said the county will consider altering the automated message to better indicate what areas have shelter-in-place orders. She also said improvements to the website are ongoing.
Sangster suggested changing the caller ID of the alert system. Currently, most people’s phones will display calls from the warning system as having a number of all zeros.
Hern said attaching a real number to the call system would inevitably lead to some people calling it back, which would create a problem because there is no staff to handle that influx of calls.
The caller ID of all zeros was selected so that it would grab people’s attention, she said, and so that it could be distinguished from a 1-800 telemarketer number.
“It’s not ideal, but it’s the best thing we can do at the moment without a staffed call center,” she said.
To prepare for future emergencies, the best thing for people to do, Hern said, is to sign up their cell phones on the community warning system website , and familiarize themselves with the methods for obtaining emergency information.
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