Monday, July 21, 2008

Public forum held on public information


Among dozens of local residents who gathered for a forum on improving the delivery of public information during emergencies, the sentiment seemed overwhelmingly clear: Santa Barbara citizens want a reliable, up-to-date and easily accessible source during moments of crisis.
Spurred on by their recent experience with the Gap Fire, which is all but wrapped up at 97 percent containment, dozens converged on the Faulkner Gallery on Monday evening to share concerns and offer solutions.

“The hills were burning and people wanted to know what was going on,” said Peter Sklar, founder and publisher of, which hosted the open-microphone event.
Many expressed the need for a dedicated AM radio station for emergency information, particularly during power outages when Internet and television sources are all but inaccessible.
When they flipped on local radio stations, many said they got canned programming or vague, stale information.
One resident described how he lives below the area burned by the Gap Fire and only wanted to know where the fire was and where it was heading. Information from those in the field, whether the fire is moving or stable, is critical, he said.
“That should be what immediately gets out on an AM station,” the resident said.
During a power outage, such as the string of outages caused by the Gap Fire when smoke wreaked havoc on heavy transmission lines, informational kiosks set up at public locations are also crucial sources of information. Several residents pressed for those kiosks to be updated frequently with accurate maps of the fire perimeter.
County Fire Capt. Eli Iskow, in attendance and taking notes, said while having outdated mapping is a huge concern for the public, fire officials are limited in their ability to generate accurate maps. Infrared flights used to map the hot edge of the fire only occur once a day on most fires.
“It is a problem,” Capt. Iskow said. “We don’t have any updates other than field officers calling in to the command center.”
Nonetheless, he said more work will be done on getting as much information out to the public as possible, such as better publicizing a website,, where daily maps of fires throughout the nation can be found.
Other participants had concerns about the central source during an emergency that disseminates information to media. Even with a 24-hour radio station, information will be stale if the primary source is not putting out frequent updates, some argued.
Some had more specific concerns, describing how information in Spanish was lacking during the first few days of the Gap Fire. Others just wanted a greater understanding of government communications and the chain of command in getting information out to the public.
One woman in attendance said she had been in Pennsylvania when the fire broke out and had difficulty tracking down any information. She requested a call-in number with recorded information updated frequently.
Another speaker wanted more understandable information about locations. Evacuations for the “Haney Tract” during the Gap Fire aren’t helpful, she said, if that term is unfamiliar to many.
Cindy Chojnacky, a district ranger with the Los Padres National Forest who served as a spokeswoman during the Gap Fire, said she will definitely be mulling over suggestions and concerns expressed Monday evening.
“The more we can work on getting information out to the community earlier, the better,” she said.
County of Santa Barbara spokesman William Boyer and Goleta’s spokeswoman Kirsten Deshler also attended and took notes, along with other public information officials and community leaders.
Sklar said he plans to compile the comments gathered during the event and post them online, where users can view, comment and make suggestions. The ultimate goal, he said, is coming to a consensus on solutions that can be presented to government leaders and those charged with getting critical information out to residents during emergencies.

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