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Editorial re: Santa Anita Fire/Sierra Madre Fire

May 1, 2008


Main Santa Anita Fire /Sierra Madre Fire page

Coverage/updates from during the fire, as it was posted (includes some photos)

Photos by SM News Net

Videos by SM News Net (coming soon)

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Congressman David Dreier interview and press conference

Nice things people wrote about our coverage

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Post fire editorial


All Things Considered, It Went Fairly Well, Don't You Think?

an editorial by Bill Coburn


No lives lost.  No structures lost.  Considering the potential for disaster that last weekend's fire could have brought down upon our little village, I thought the response, by both the City and the community, went pretty well overall.  I became aware of the fire at about 3:15, when it was still pretty small.  I was at AM/PM on Santa Anita and Foothill, and heard several Arcadia fire engines in a row go by, so I looked up on the hill, and there it was.


About 4:00, I was at Sierra Vista Park to cover the first Poetry and Jazz Festival.  Unfortunately, it had been shut down, because already the park was being readied to become the fire command post.


Shortly thereafter, I was at City Hall, and Mayor Zimmerman, Council members Mosca and Buchanan, City Manager Aguilar, Police Chief Marilyn Diaz and Library Director Toni Buckner were all there already and the Emergency Operations Center was up and running. 


I was impressed with how quickly the staff transitioned from sitting in a park listening to poets and jazz to manning an emergency center communicating with all the various agencies already involved, even at that early stage.


The Fire Department, the Police Department and the City staff all did a terrific job, from what I observed.  They worked long hours, some with little or no sleep.  They were on top of everything, near as I can tell.


It should be noted that staff regularly drills for these sorts of things, as, obviously, do the fire department and the PD.  And that had to be a factor in the excellent job that the City received from these people.  I know there's been some bickering in the community that some or all of our staff is overpaid, that these guys should be happy to work in this town for less money, I think I even heard the term psychic dollars, and one Council candidate stated that the most waste that could be trimmed from the budget was going to come from personnel.  I hope we all learned something from this weekend.


The City Council members get good marks overall.  Mayor Zimmerman, in my observation did a very good job, though I have some concerns about the reports that he prematurely stated that the fire was set by someone.  But I wasn't there and I haven't seen the footage.  I've read recounts of what happened, but again, I wasn't there, nor was I there when Mayor KZ got the information he based his statement on.  Everything I've read says that the Mayor mis-spoke, and the PIO and the Police Chief did their job in clarifying the misstatement.  So hopefully, Mayor KZ will learn to be a little more cautious in what he says.  But that one error shouldn't overshadow the fact that he did what he should, as our Mayor, do, and he did it well.  I was a little surprised, since I'd seen him around town a lot, that he was MIA when Congressman Dreier was here.  I saw several members of staff on their phones frantically trying to track him down, but they were unsuccessful.  But I don't think Congressman Dreier would have been any more responsive to the City's needs than he was, just because he met the Mayor.  And it's my understanding that Mayor KZ did speak with the Congressman later, whether he made the photo op or not.


Council members Buchanan and Mosca were, as always, everywhere.  They did what they needed to do, they spoke with residents, updating them on the status, listened to their needs, and reassured them when they could. 


Council member Watts made the 12:10am emergency council meeting Sunday morning, and voted to pass the emergency resolution.  I didn't see him the rest of the weekend, but that doesn't mean he wasn't around, it just means he wasn't where I was at the times I was where I was.


Council member MacGillivray made it to City Hall just after the meeting, despite the fact she was in the evacuation area.  She didn't need to be there, but she got there, even if she was a few minutes late.  Had the meeting lasted a couple minutes longer, she would have gotten there before it adjourned.  Like Council member Watts, I didn't see her the rest of the weekend, but that doesn't mean she wasn't around, it just means she wasn't where I was at the times I was where I was.  And since she lives in the evac area, if she had been MIA, it would be understandable.


City staff, though.  Man, was I impressed.  Elaine Aguilar, Michelle Keith, Elisa Weaver, Bruce Inman, Toni Buckner, Karen Schnaider, Chris Cimino, James Carlson, Susan Clifton, Jae Hill, Catriona Schaefer, Adam Matsumoto, and I'm sure many others whose names I haven't included.  But I saw all of these people, working at the Command Center or the Emergency Operations Center.  And they were in complete control.  That may have been in part due to the leadership being exhibited by someone who isn't even staff.  He's a former fire chief, Roger Keith.  He did a great job from what I observed.  But I really probably shouldn't get into that, because when I walked into the EOC, the first thing I said to Roger was "I'm not here as the press, I'm here to volunteer."  So it would be inappropriate to describe what was going on, or to recount the happenings inside the EOC.  But it was impressive.


The one area that I've heard some criticism about was the communications aspect, more specifically the City website and SMTV3.  I think everyone agrees that PIO Elisa Weaver and PIO James Carlson had their hands full dealing with a constant barrage of media inquiries, from radio, television and print media all across the state.  They still managed to stay calm and level-headed, and provided the information to the larger media at press conferences, one on one, and via telephone. 


But the website and SMTV3 are taking some knocks, some possibly deserved, but most of them not.  First of all, the people who normally deal with the website and SMTV3 were filling other roles on the Emergency Response Team.  We have scaled staff back so much, that we need to recognize that there just aren't going to be bodies enough to do everything.  Emergency information got placed on TV and the website fairly quickly.  But the big complaint is that it wasn't updated frequently enough. 


SMTV3's performance in this incident was greatly improved over previous events, and from public comment, I suspect the next event will find even greater improvement.


I received an e-mail, addressed to the City manager, myself and two City Council members stating that communications were a big issue, and infrequent updates was a main complaint.  In my response to all, I suggested that in the future, every couple hours or even more frequently, a footer should be added that tells the last time the slide show was updated, and that there should be an update even if it was to say that the information posted 12 hours earlier was still the most current information.  If people see something they saw 12 hours ago, they think the ball has been dropped, but if they see the same thing with a note saying this information was deemed current 35 minutes ago, even if it's 12 hours old, they'll feel better.


In addition, network television, independent TV, radio stations and the press were all being notified of current status, so people could have gotten that info elsewhere...And local media, too.  Those criticizing might want to consider that many of the updates posted on my site came directly from City staff.  And that includes phone calls I made at 2:30am, 4:30am, etc..


I kind of blame myself a little for the problems with both those communication points.  The fact is that when I volunteered on Sunday to be a body, there was nothing for me to do at that time.  And I didn't think to say, do you want me to help with SMTV 3 or the website.  At that point, admittedly, I didn't know that they weren't being updated as frequently as they might have been (I have a dish, and don't get Channel 3), but I still should have thought to make the suggestion, if only to free up staff from that job so they could do other things.  I have since told the City manager (and in the aforementioned e-mail notified the two council members as well) that in future emergencies, I will be happy to drop by every couple hours to ascertain current information and post it on the City website and SMTV 3.  I may need a refresher course, but I've worked with SMTV 3 before and it was just PowerPoint, which is one of the ways I make my living, so I feel confident I could help in those areas.  I also understand that another web designer has offered her assistance.


Another idea I had, which has also been suggested by others, is that the City site/SMTV3 should provide a list of alternative media resources for people to check. did a very good job keeping people up to date. did so, as well, though eventually it slowed down and ultimately stopped because it was in the evacuation area.  It was good to see back in operation, as they've been off more than on recently, and they provided many people with lots of updated information.  KPCC had regular updates I'm told.


A lot of people are suggesting phone blasts and cell phone blasts as a method for informing people  That's good, so long as we know when an area loses phone service.  And if the disaster is an earthquake that knocks out cells, there's a problem.


I have some ideas, but I'll keep most of them to myself for now.  But here's one...In an earthquake where power is lost, could we have a big screen set up in Kersting Court, with a projector hooked up to a laptop that is being powered by a generator?  The SMTV slideshow could be projected, and updated regularly with emergency information, and maybe even could be used as a lost and found, where people can say "Laura S., I'm at your Aunt Sue's house."  The screen could hang from the top of a building so that crowds would still be able to see it.


I have to say, while I recognize there were glitches, overall, based only on my experiences, I'd say the City did very well.  And those who feel differently have a right to voice their gripes, and the City should look closely at how they can prevent future gripes.  I'd like to help with that.  I've notified the City Manager that if there's going to be a Citizen committee to look at this event and the City's response, I'm interested in sitting on it. 


Final thought:  One of Mayor KZ's supporters went on TheFCBlog with a puff piece telling everyone how much we need to commend Mayor KZ for what he did over the weekend.  He's right Mayor KZ should be commended.  But I'm not sure he should be singled out to the exclusion of the SMVFD, SMPD, City Staff and all the other agencies statewide that helped out through this crisis.  What he did was his job. Maybe there should be a comment or two recognizing his initiation by fire (pun intended), having just become mayor less than a week earlier. Many don't know it, but the morning the fire began, Mayor KZ didn't get to sleep in because he was dedicating Goldberg Park, and he did a good job at that, as well (we'll be posting our coverage soon, including video).   The supporter had every right to do what he did, but I wish he had spent a couple minutes talking about the great job everyone else did, too.  And I wish that those who objected to the post had just ignored it, instead of continuing the political back and forth that takes place when people can say what they want without having to put their name on it to back it up.  And by the way, I'm all for pseudonyms and anonymous discussion, when it's responsible and reasoned.  Ben Franklin and Mark Twain were famous for it, and there are some folks on the blogs who make very valid points.  But much of what is done anonymously or under false names on blogs these days doesn't seem to be either responsible or reasoned.


Most people who follow local politics have figured out that Kurt and I aren't exactly aligned.  But he took the time today to give me a call and commend me on my coverage of the fire.  Gotta tell you, it was a surprise to see the name Kurt Zimmerman on my caller ID.  I suspect it wasn't an easy call for him to make.  But he did it.  The fact of the matter is, it's just another example of Kurt doing what he should, as Mayor, do, particularly in a time of emergency (and since we are still winding down, it's still a time of emergency).  He put politics aside and extended a hand to say thanks for your service to the community.  I hope that we all can remember that spirit as we move forward AFTER the emergency, working together for the good of the town, recognizing each other's love and respect for the town even if we disagree on how to show it. Having seen the job Kurt did at Goldberg Park, then during the fire, and now, in making that call, I hope we are seeing a side of our new mayor that, whether his opponents saw it previously or not, has been there lurking, and is coming to the front for the rest of us to recognize.  Who knows, maybe in the future, seeing that name in my caller ID won't be as big a surprise.


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