The City and County of San Diego, as well as the State of California, are now going through the process of reviewing how well the governments responded to the emergency of the fire storm that raged around us. This was the same process that we went through in 2003 that brought about some positive changes with this year’s fire emergency.
One of the most talked about changes that came out of the 2003 fires was the need to better communicate not only between the fire services but with the community in general. The lesson learned from the ’03 fires was the inability to communicate with homeowners in order to warn them of the pending danger and when to evacuate: “Sheriff’s deputies had to resort to using bullhorns and knocking on people’s doors to frantically evacuate households one by one,” stated a recent press release.
From the lessons learned the Sheriff’s department developed the Reverse 911 system that through a click of a computer mouse could notify thousands of people (in fact 400,000 people during this past emergency) of the need to evacuate. The way the system worked was on a three tiered bases: First a warning, then a voluntary evacuation notice, and finally a mandatory evacuation notice.
But this system only worked if you spoke English. If your primary language or only language was other than English you were left out of the loop, and this is not some small number of people. With Spanish-speakers alone, this population is 700,000. In National City, 75 percent of the population is Spanish-speaking so the majority of those residents wouldn’t know what was going on. Then you add in the other languages such as Tagalog and the non-English speaking community is substantial throughout the County.
During the Cedar fires in ’03 there was the glaring failure of communicating with the Spanish-speaking communities; very little if any information was decimated during the ’03 fires in Spanish. This lesson from ’03 fell on deaf ears.
Supervisor Greg Cox is riding the wave of popularity with the success of Reverse 911. He is receiving much of the credit for the system. That is fine, but what he should be doing is recognizing the linguistic needs of the County and pushing for and insisting on a multi-lingual system that benefits all residents. Let us learn from this year’s lessons and make the upgrades necessary. It could make the difference between life and death.