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Sheriff’s Office employs lessons from 2017 fires to improve emergency response

When a life-threatening fire burns in unincorporated county areas, the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office is tasked with the duty of conducting evacuations. The Sheriff’s Office works shoulder to shoulder with fire personnel to understand a fire’s projected path and, as a result, identifying those who may be in harm’s way. Since the 2017 fires, the Sheriff’s Office has made notable improvements to streamline evacuations, improve public information, and increase community preparedness. 

During the Tubbs fire, the Sheriff’s Office was the first agency to send bilingual alerts in English and Spanish, the first agency to hold a press conference, and the first agency to provide bilingual information at press conferences. These are now staples of disaster communications throughout much of the state. Reaching every resident, including Spanish-speakers, remains a high priority for the county. All emergency information continues to be shared in English and Spanish through Nixle alerts, social media, press conferences and interviews. The Sheriff’s Office now also works very closely with emergency management as they issue consistent, timely, bilingual alerts.

Hi-lo sirens were installed on patrol cars and are now used throughout the county to serve as another alerting tool. When activated, the hi-lo sirens emit a distinctive two-tone siren indicating an evacuation order is in place. All Sheriff’s Office patrol cars were outfitted with hi-lo sirens in 2018.

Evacuation zones are a centerpiece of the Sheriff’s Office’s emergency preparedness work. In conjunction with the cities, the office led efforts to create standard evacuation zones. The standardization of zones allows the Sheriff’s Office and fire agencies to conduct evacuations faster and more efficiently than ever before. There are 211 evacuation zones in the unincorporated area and dozens more within the nine cities.

The Sheriff’s Office is an active participant in emergency preparedness education. Since 2017, the office regularly participates in evacuation drills, COPE (Communities Organized to Prepare for Emergencies) meetings, and dozens of community events, educating the public on emergency preparedness and empowering people to make smart decisions during disasters.

The Tubbs fire taught everyone that seconds count in evacuations. To increase the speed of evacuations, the Sheriff’s Office rolled out the evacuation tag program in 2020 to help first responders quickly identify which residents have already evacuated. These free tags are still available and residents are encouraged to have them available, as they are a small but useful tool to save deputies precious time conducting door-to-door evacuations. Deputies can focus their efforts on residents who need assistance while clearing neighborhoods more quickly. This then allows firefighters to focus on their job – extinguishing the fire. In 2022, the Sheriff’s Office also implemented a gate code registration program, a confidential system to provide first responders quick, easy access to gated properties during evacuations and other emergencies.