Communications faltered, panel told
07:27 AM PST on Friday, February 6, 2004
By BEN GOAD / The Press-Enterprise
RIVERSIDE - Communication problems between fire, police and forest agencies battling last fall's historic Southern California wildfires hampered the efforts of firefighting crews and made resource management unnecessarily difficult, officials testified before a state panel on Thursday.
Roughly 30 members of Gov. Schwarzenegger's Blue Ribbon Fire Commission, along with more than 100 area emergency officials and elected leaders listened to experts address the need for an advanced inter-agency communication system.
Though spurred most recently by complaints from the firelines during the October blazes, the call for shared technology, allowing different agencies to work in concert via handheld radios, is not new.
Officials from across the state cited problems while responding to past wildfires, earthquakes, the Watts riots and potential for future terrorist strikes as evidence of the need for better communication.
U.S. Forest Service officials said the delivery of radios to the firelines was too slow and there were problems with batteries running out more quickly than expected. They blamed poor planning. Some dispatchers sent out into the field during the blazes had never been trained on the radios with which they were provided.
Along with devising a system using new technology, the communication problem could be countered with warning measures now being explored, said Dallas Jones, director of the state Office of Emergency Services.
They include a reverse 911 call program through which residents in threatened areas could be warned and a text-based emergency news wire that could supply the media and the public with up-to-the-minute updates.
San Bernardino National Forest Supervisor Gene Zimmerman said he supports improved communications, but said that won't begin to address the most immediate problems: the ongoing drought and bark beetle infestation, which has left the forest parched and ready to burn.
"Even if we fix the communications, we're still going to have huge fires," Zimmerman said. "We need to address how to better manage the forest and get rid of the fuels up there. That's the root of the problem."
The next in the series of meetings held by the commission is scheduled in Los Angeles County in about two weeks.
The group will then finalize a list of recommendations and is expected to present to Schwarzenegger for review late next month.
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