The La Tuna fire response prompts look at how Los Angeles alerts its residents in a disaster.
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When the La Tuna fire started on Sept. 1, residents in the immediate burn area were informed by knocks on doors and through social media. But they weren’t contacted through the NotifyLA mass notification system.
The system is the city’s official mass notification network used to send voice messages, text messages and email messages to residents and businesses during times of emergencies and disasters.
After a debriefing and hearing from the public about the fire, there “were people who didn’t get the message that should have,” said Chris Ipsen, spokesman for the city’s Emergency Management Department. “So we are going to be using it.”
The issue was revealed to the L.A. city council Public Safety Committee in the La Tuna fire response-and-recovery summary report on Nov. 2.
The blaze, which was the largest fire by acreage in the city of Los Angeles in more than 50 years, ultimately burned 7,194 acres around the Verdugo Mountains and was fully contained on Sept. 9. It burned in Glendale, Burbank and L.A.’s Sun Valley and Sunland-Tujunga areas.
There was concern in the Nov. 2 report over how communication among agencies could have been stronger. It also foreshadowed concerns about mudslides in the wake of the fire.
“We cannot and will not pull the trigger on a mass notification unless the unified commanders (which includes the Los Angeles Police Department and Los Angeles Fire Department) approve it,” Ipsen said on Thursday. “When we approached the unified command it was a very small area we were evacuating. They felt they had the fire under control. So the decision was made not to use it.”
There are 110,000 registered users of NotifyLA, less than the more than four million people in L.A., the spokesman said.
“‘So how do we get more people registered?'” Ipsen said. “For us, we need to get the public more aware of it.”
But Ipsen said it was a “legitimate question for us” why the notification system wasn’t used.
“We know we’ve had ‘bleed over’ in the past, where we’ve had people notified where there is no issue,” Ipsen explained. “But we would rather err on being over-notified rather than having no notification.”
NotifyLA is a quick, effective way of informing residents because “everyone” has a smart phone, Ipsen noted.
“A voice call and email can tell you that you need to evacuate immediately,” the spokesman said. “It will also tell you you’re in a projected evacuation zone. Or give a heads up that we may come knocking on your door. Or we can say all is clear you can come back.”
Ipsen said an initial test alert of the NotifyLA system for residents in the La Tuna fire burn area was conducted on Oct. 31.
“We were able to contact around 3,000 residences in the area,” Ipsen explained, adding they want more people to register. “From our perspective, it was a successful test.”
Communication issues were not just an issue in the La Tuna fire.
Agencies dealt with issues in Orange County in the 9,217 acre Canyon Fire 2 that began in Anaheim Hills. Fire officials said the city’s emergency operations center activated within 15 minutes but the fire jumped about 2 miles in less than 4 minutes.
In L.A. County, a La Tuna fire community town hall to discuss recovery efforts and preparations for the rainy season is scheduled for 6:30 p.m. Nov. 14 at All Nations Church.
The meeting, presented by L.A. City Councilwoman Monica Rodriguez and L.A. County Supervisor Supervisor Kathryn Barger, will take place at 10000 Foothill Boulevard in Lake View Terrace.
Tony Bell, spokesman for L.A. County Supervisor Barger, said the denuding of the hills after the fire combined with the winter months presents a potential threat of water-related issues, including mudslides.
The upcoming meeting “could be very, very important when you consider the loss of life and property a big storm could have,” Bell said. “The one sentiment area near Village Christian School where the area is virtually a water collection for rain will cause a great deal of problems now. Especially with the hills having nothing holding them back. We have to make sure the constituents are prepared.”
Tran Le, director of communications for Rodriguez, said in an emailed statement the councilwoman has introduced two motions this year regarding the issue.
“In the aftermath of the fire, Councilwoman Monica Rodriguez spearheaded efforts to mitigate potential risks and to prepare our community to deal with large-scale emergencies,” Le said.
The first motion, dated Sept. 8, asks for information on the city’s response to the fire and evacuation process for the affected area including the impacts it had on public infrastructure and other relevant issues from the fire.
The second motion, dated Nov. 1, would create a program to ensure the public right-of-way is clear in areas that are at high risk of mudslides during weather events.
For questions about the meeting, contact 213-473-7007 or RSVP at bit.ly/2hPYYGy.
To sign up for NotifyLA, head to http://emergency.lacity.org/notifyla