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Sheriff’s report on San Bernardino winter storms calls out communication, organization problems

Communication issues and a disorganized response by government officials delayed the official response to the winter storms that buried San Bernardino Mountain communities in snow in February and March, according to a report released by the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department.

“As responders worked through the first several days of the incident, it became apparent the complexities of this regionwide event required a more localized operational approach,” the department’s 18-page after-action report, released on Wednesday, Sept. 20, reads in part. “Decentralization of the County Emergency Operation Services (OES) negatively affected communications.”

The Sheriff’s Department and San Bernardino County Fire Protection District instead switched to an Incident Management Team model run by county fire. The incident team managed day to day operations in the field, while the county Emergency Operations Center stuck with coordinating storm response.

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Three weeks of winter storms, from Feb. 23 through March 15, dumped up to 11 feet of snow in areas of the San Bernardino Mountains, according to the report. Mountain residents criticized the official response to the storms, including how many snowplows were deployed and poor communication with the public.

The report confirms many of the issues that surfaced in 2,343 pages of internal San Bernardino County emails previously obtained through a California Public Records Act request by the Southern California News Group.

Disorganized response

According to the sheriff’s report, county government was disorganized in its response at first. That hurt efforts to clear roads and help mountain communities.

“During the storm, there was a consistent communications gap between the County Office of Emergency Services (OES) / Emergency Operations Center (EOC) and the Sheriff’s Department Operation Center (DOC) / Fire Incident Management Team (IMT),” the report reads in part. “This caused delays in getting resources and accurate information.”

According to the report, “poor coordination by the County Office of Emergency Services” led to delays in getting food and supplies to snowed-in areas.

Officials also didn’t get enough accurate information out on social media. The report says that “contributed to the spread of misinformation.”

The Emergency Operations Center reportedly did a bad job when it was “inundated” with volunteers wanting to help.

“Due to the (Emergency Operations Center) not managing the influx of volunteers, the Sheriff’s Department and Fire Department had to step in and coordinate volunteer efforts,” the report reads in part. “It took almost 24 hours to coordinate and establish effective communications between the various volunteer groups. This caused frustration within the volunteer groups and initial ineffective management of the groups.”

This led to further chaos. Volunteers decided to fly in to mountain communities without coordinating with the Sheriff’s Department or other agencies, according to the report.

A lack of coordination with other government agencies also hampered efforts.

“On March 2, 2023, a decision was made by members outside of the IMT to open state highways to residents for several hours,” the report reads in part. “Almost immediately, traffic congestion issues developed with vehicles becoming stuck and blocking roadways in and around various mountain communities.”

Sheriff Shannon Dicus and county Fire Chief Dan Munsey spoke with state officials and all highways up the mountain were again closed to general traffic, the report continues, so that emergency vehicles could work to clear vehicles and remove snow.

This lack of coordination in government agencies echoed emails previously released to the Southern California News Group. Dawn Rowe, chairperson of the San Bernardino County Board of Supervisors, learned that the National Guard would be deployed to the San Bernardino Mountains by reading about it in a newspaper article, rather than from the National Guard or California Office of Emergency Services.

Despite these missteps, there were 269 documented rescues of mountain residents evacuated via tracked Snowcat vehicles between March 2 and March 7, according to the report:

  • March 2: 12 people evacuated
  • March 3: 60 people evacuated
  • March 4: 150 people evacuated
  • March 5: 24 people evacuated
  • March 6: 14 people evacuated
  • March 7: 9 people evacuated

Poor communication

But word of these successes didn’t get out to the public as they were happening.

According to the sheriff’s report, officials did a poor job telling the public what was being accomplished. That led to an information vacuum that effectively gave more weight to complaints on social media and reported by the media. News that 13 deaths had occurred in the mountains during the storm was sensationalized as a result, according to the report.

“These unverifiable and factually lacking posts and reports unnecessarily increased the public’s anxieties and led to widespread misinformation,” the report reads in part.

In the end, the county coroner’s division said only one of those 13 deaths was storm-related.

“Four of the 13 deaths were persons who were either on hospice care or under doctor’s care at a medical facility,” the report continued.

Frustrations over messaging isn’t a new compliant.

During the storms, Sheriff Dicus praised the county’s efforts and said a lack of information from officials led to the public believing the worst.

“When we’re out there trying to do things, the last thing we are doing is taking pictures of us doing our job,” Dicus said on March 8. “In terms of doing what’s important — protecting human life — the response has been immediate.”

Preparing for next time

According to the report, the Sheriff’s Department is already taking steps to make sure things go better next time.

During the winter storms, “it took until day four of the storm to include GPS tracking data in our data collections,” which was used to help plan responses. All deputies were issued cell phones with GPS tracking data software midyear. They have been trained to use GPS data during disasters from the start.

Distributing food and supplies was made harder by “poor coordination by the County Office of Emergency Services,” the report reads in part.

In future, the Sheriff’s Department and OES will choose distribution sites ahead of time and plan for deputies to distribute food and supplies as needed.

That planning will also include planning meetings with multiple groups before winter begins. The department will also release information about storm preparedness, warming center locations and where to get more information “well before a storm’s arrival,” according to the report.

Snowcats are “the most effective (vehicles) for the conditions encountered,” the report reads in part. But the Twin Peaks sheriff’s station didn’t have any at the time of the blizzard. One is being purchased for the department, plus other equipment to help with future blizzard conditions.

Given the number of short-term rentals in the mountains — and guests who may have no idea how to prepare for blizzards — the report also recommends officials prepare a list of what rental units need when the next blizzard hits.

Communications with both other officials and the public will be improved in the future, according to the report. The Public Affairs Division will directly coordinate with department officials running disaster responses to make sure information gets out to the public on social media. The Sheriff’s Department is also working with the county’s Innovation and Technology Division to put real-time disaster response data from both the sheriff and county fire in one place.

In the future, designated OES personnel will coordinate volunteer efforts. A consistent point of contact will be established with each volunteer group, according to the report.

And, the Sheriff’s Department says, the time has come to shift the OES back under the command of the Fire Protection District.

“During the COVID-19 pandemic, OES was placed under the County Administrative Office to deal with the unique challenges,” the report reads in part. “Still, it has been proven problematic due to lack of experience and subject matter expertise on traditional emergencies such as the 2023 mountain storms. This organizational change has created an unnecessary separation, contributing to the lack of communication.”

According to the report, the Sheriff’s Department’s storm response cost an estimated $1.6 million, including personnel, equipment, meals, mileage, supplies and travel costs.

The Sheriff Department’s report is separate from an expected official report by San Bernardino County. That’s being assembled by an outside consulting firm.

“I look forward to working with Connect Consulting so our department can keep our citizens safe and provide the best customer service to the communities we serve,” Dicus is quoted as saying in a Sheriff’s Department news release.

The county’s report was to be released in mid-September, but has been delayed until late November. Until then, the county has no official response to the sheriff’s take on events.

“We are confident the county’s after-action report will identify any issues that impacted the storm response,” county spokesperson David Wert wrote in an email Friday, Sept. 22. “We expect to learn from the findings and make improvements where needed. Until then, it would be inappropriate for the county to discuss what those issues might have been.”

More on the San Bernardino Mountains winter storms

Source: Orange County Register

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