On February 18, 2015, two workers suffered minor injuries and debris was dispersed into the surrounding community following an explosion in the gasoline processing unit at the ExxonMobil Refinery in Torrance. The incident brought to light the need to change the way communication is coordinated during community disasters.
“There were gaps identified in coordination, communication and interoperability that prevented emergency alerts from going beyond city boundaries,” said Soraya Sutherlin, alert and warning manager for Alert SouthBay Emergency Operations. “Disasters don’t respect jurisdictional boundaries; neither does air for that matter. The need to integrate alert and warning systems into one platform was critical.” In addition, Assembly Bill 1646, passed in 2017, mandated that local implementing agencies (LIA) develop an intergrated system for cross jurisdictional messaging in the event of an offsite release at a petroleum refinery.
To address these concerns, the Alert SouthBay system was established in March 2020. To help with message delivery, it utilized and enhanced existing notifications provided by Everbridge and NIXLE (existing software platforms for local, public safety and service communications that deliver real-time relevant information from official agencies to the communities they serve).
The new service integrated 14 South Bay cities to provide emergency alerts and warnings to their residents. Through the system, each city can send public messages and alerts via SMS (Text), email, phone, landline, as well as other means of communication to residents. Messages can also reach other impacted jurisdictions, should the incident warrant that level of warning.
Establishment of the system was well timed with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. In March 2020, Alert SouthBay activated a Joint Information Center to address communication needs.
“We worked tirelessly for 18 months addressing misinformation, information about testing, breaking down the health officer orders into digestible parts, providing resources to residents, and providing weekly Covid-19 updates,” Sutherlin said.
Alert SouthBay issued 56 regional updates during the pandemic and conducted three community-wide surveys directed at addressing the needs of communities.
The Alert SouthBay Task Force is the governing body that determines how, when and why alerts are sent. It is composed of emergency managers, fire chiefs, police department personnel and city management staff. Additionally, it has members from the Los Angeles County Fire Department and LA County Sheriff’s Department who serve as integral members of the team. Sutherlin said the goal of the Task Force is to develop and discuss processes, procedures, best practices and coordinate emergency alerts and warnings to create a comprehensive program “to address our communities when minutes matter the most.”
Beginning in June, the South Bay Cities Council of Governments (SBCCOG) will serve as a partner in Alert SouthBay endeavors to help keep communities informed. •