When disaster relief officials gathered at news conferences during May’s spate of wildfires, they agreed they were talking to each other a lot better than they had during the region’s destructive wildfires in 2003 and 2007.

Still, there were some noticeable and comical missteps. And on Tuesday, when it came to hashing out how San Diego County plans to move forward with its response efforts, communication and outreach were at the top of the list.

Seventeen of the county’s 21 recommendations for improving wildfire response deal in some way with communication. These range from ensuring the public has quick access to maps showing a wildfire’s boundaries, to a $400,000 preparedness campaign.

Here are two key changes the county wants to make, and some details on why the biggest potential change – a new $5 million firefighting helicopter – hasn’t yet made the cut.

Cut the 2-1-1 Wait Times

County staff said that during the May wildfires, wait times for 2-1-1 callers increased greatly after an evacuation order or news conference. So they’ve proposed doubling the number of trained county employee disaster service workers from 200 to 400.

The county noted the average wait time for nearly all of their 33,478 callers was 1 minute, 40 seconds, but that they needed help during peak times.

Break Down Language Barriers

The county issues a lot of its materials in both English and Spanish, but plenty of people in San Diego County speak a language other than English or Spanish. The county has been working on the issue for several years but still struggles to get its messaging into non-English monolingual communities.

So they’re also doubling down on this effort, and plan to increase the number of “partner relay” organizations from 150 to 300. That program is designed to get evacuation notices and other information to these communities, often through houses of worship, schools and young people (who are often bilingual).

“It’s important for us to reach everyone. Particularly paying attention to more vulnerable populations, we have an interest in reaching those individuals,” said Holly Crawford, director of emergency services for the county.

“The majority of San Diego County residents gets their disaster information from local TV,” she said. “But there’s not a TV station where someone speaks Karen locally.”

Fire Helicopter No. 3 on Hold

Supervisor Bill Horn was ready to spend some $5 million to add a third helicopter to the firefighting fleet. The county report said aerial responses can be critical during fires.

“Aerial resources are often the ‘game changer’ when it comes to fighting wildland fires,” the report said. “The region should explore the next logical step to bolster our aerial firefighting resources.”

But Horn’s colleagues were wary of spending that kind of money, particularly when they could implement other comparatively cheap and easy recommendations now. The supervisors agreed to spend $500,000 to boost a program that allows emergency officials to call for additional helicopter support during extended Red Flag conditions. They’re still considering buying another of their own.

Ari Bloomekatz

Ari Bloomekatz is an investigative reporter for Voice of San Diego, focusing on county government. You can reach him directly at ari.bloomekatz@voiceofsandiego.org...

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