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Unified Command Team sheds light on county messaging technology

Debris Flow alert
Kacey Drescher/KEYT Photo

SANTA BARBARA COUNTY, Calif. - It's been a wild week for first responders and emergency personnel in Santa Barbara County and its only Wednesday. 

While the rain helped people that fled the Cave Fire's path get back in their homes faster, it presented another set of circumstances to react to. 

After flames and debris flow concerns, some 5,000 evacuees were allowed to return home Wednesday.

“We’ve gone through this a few times and it’s still stressful no matter what you do,” said Jo Anne Sciortino, as she returned to her home. 

Some say a vague tweet and a late-night Debris Flow Evacuation Warning added to that stress

“As we were making decisions, we knew that we were going to put areas into a warning so we wanted to provide some information out to the community that we were going to do something and then the decision was made for the warning area and then we have to develop a message,” said Lt. Brian Olmstead, Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Office. 

County, fire and law enforcement representatives make up a Unified Command System and they decide what to do as a group. 

“We look at how many people are impacted what the true risks are and what is in the best interest of public safety,” said Commander Kevin Huddle, Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Office. 

Huddle and Olmstead represented the Sheriff’s Office in the Unified Command and say the National Weather Service was embedded in the process.

“When you do the alerts, similar to our Amber Alerts, there are restrictions. There’s only so many characters so you have to craft a message that gets information out without causing more questions but when you’re limited by so many characters you have to be very conscientious on how you put that out to make sure it doesn’t cause confusion,” said Huddle. 

Lt. Olmstead says the messaging technology isn’t exactly user-friendly which could explain why people in Nipomo got the alert or why some got it in only Spanish.

“Sometimes when you type it in, it changes into a default where it ends up being a bigger area people so unfortunately, people outside the affected area got the message,” said Olmstead. 

Officials say they are always evaluating what worked, what didn’t and how they can improve.

“We’re always trying to put out the best information as fast as possible,” said Olmstead. 

While it was all hands on deck for the Cave Fire, the county also upstaffed to prepare for a potential debris flow. Olmstead said they had helicopters, extra fire, law enforcement, and search and rescue crews ready to go. 

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Kacey Drescher

Kacey Drescher is a reporter/anchor at KEYT|KCOY|KKFX.

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