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Report calls for consistent use of emergency alert program by city police and firefighters

Report calls for consistent use of emergency alert program by city police and firefighters
A police officer runs to evacuate residents as the La Tuna fire approaches homes in Sunland. f (Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)

It was during a broiling heat wave in September when the La Tuna fire erupted and sent firefighters and police officers scrambling to warn residents as flames swept through the Verdugo Mountains.

Three months later, the Creek fire sent residents in Sylmar and Little Tujunga Canyon fleeing for their lives after the blaze jumped the 210 Freeway. In this case, however, emergency crews warned residents of the fast-moving threat by tapping into the city’s underused NotifyLA emergency alert system.

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On Tuesday, City Controller Ron Galperin issued a report saying firefighters erred by failing to use the alert system during the La Tuna fire.

In light of the system’s inconsistent use, Galperin’s report suggests that the city codify a set of standard operating procedures for the NotifyLA system, including a description of events that would trigger its use.

The recommendations would effectively limit the discretion of incident commanders who may be reluctant to issue alerts beyond official tweets and emails. It would also address instances in which commanders are not in touch with the city’s Emergency Management Department.

“The Emergency Management Department — and our police and fire departments — work around the clock to keep Los Angeles safe. But we are collectively falling short on providing an emergency notification system that should be more widely disseminated and accessible to more Angelenos,” Galperin said. “The city can do better and I am confident that working together, we can improve.”

The report calls for the city’s police and fire departments to use NotifyLA in large-scale emergencies so the public knows where to find vital information, and isn’t left guessing.

NotifyLA is similar to many other subscriber-based community messaging systems that cover parts of California and the nation. It uses third-party software to make reverse 911 phone calls or contact individuals by cellphone or email. It can also send out information through social media.

Currently, less than 5% of the city is enrolled in the program, Galperin said.

The system, however, has the potential to reach many more people because it can use the federal Wireless Emergency Alert system, which transmits Amber Alert-style messages through cellphone towers to all phones in a designated area, officials said.

Historically, municipalities have hesitated to use these alerts because they reach more phones than officials intend to reach, and because the messages have to be short. Officials also worry that people may eventually ignore the alerts if they are used too often.

Officials in Sonoma County, for example, cited these concerns when they failed to use the alerts during the wine country fires last year. Dozens of people were killed in those fires. Leaders in Santa Barbara County were equally concerned about using the alerts before mudslides buried Montecito in January. Those slides left 21 people dead.

But Galperin pointed to the Thomas fire in December, when Santa Barbara County issued 13 Wireless Emergency Alerts notifying residents about evacuations amid the blaze and no one died in their home.

In light of those experiences, city officials said they’d rather err on the side of caution and provide more information to the public than less. A standardized approach to what kinds of situations trigger an emergency alert would eliminate messaging fatigue among members of the public, said Aram Sahakian, general manager for the city Emergency Management Department.

“It’s a sensitive situation. You pull the trigger too early, it could backfire; you pull the trigger too late, it could backfire,” he said. “We would rather be cautious. It’s not trigger happy. We’re saving lives.”

The report also recommends that NotifyLA be expanded to include more languages. Currently, information is provided almost exclusively in English. Fewer than a quarter of the messages sent out in 2014 were in Spanish.

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The city should consider using up to 13 languages in future emergency alerts, the report stated. The recommendations eventually will have to be approved by the City Council so they can be mandated.

On Tuesday afternoon, a spokesman for Mayor Eric Garcetti issued a statement applauding the controller’s report.

“Mayor Garcetti is grateful for the thoughtful recommendations in Controller Galperin’s report,” wrote Alex Comisar. “The department is already putting in place many of the upgrades highlighted in the audit, and is working to make use of the system more consistent. But because preparedness begins at home, we urge every Angeleno to make certain they can get the most up-to-date, accurate information in case of emergency — and it takes just a few seconds to sign up at emergency.lacity.org/notifyla.”

Times staff writer David Zahniser contributed to this report.

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