"There's always a lesson to learn, even if you handle something successfully," said Andrew Freeborn, public information officer and engineer for the Kern County Fire Department.
A California State Auditor's December report found that some counties and the state were not adequately prepared to protect vulnerable residents during times of natural disasters. The audit looked at the Ventura, Sonoma, and Butte counties which all faced devastating wildfires in recent years, as well as Cal OES, the State's lead agency for emergency management.
By vulnerable residents, the report means older adults, people with disabilities, chronic conditions, temporary injuries and those who either speak very little or no English.
In the report, the auditor looked at local, state, and federal emergency response plans. The report suggests that Cal OES is not doing enough to prepare for disasters.
The audit said that this then trickled down into the counties' emergency response preparations.
"Although Cal OES has issued some guidance and tools for assisting local jurisdictions in developing emergency plans to meet access and functional needs, it has not done enough to fulfill its mission with respect to protecting these vulnerable populations,” the audit stated. “Specifically, Cal OES has not taken key steps to provide support to local jurisdictions.”
Freeborn said this is easy to say in retrospect, but preparing for emergencies is not a black and white process.
No matter who you are, no matter what agency you are, you simply cannot prepare for every last possible scenario," he said. "You just have to make yourself as flexible as you can to whatever emergency may arise.
According to Freeborn, being flexible and prepared is important not only for officials ahead of emergencies but everyone. He said that as much as first responders can do to help residents, preparing for emergencies involves the entire community's participation.
"You need to be in touch with your different community groups, your different language groups, your different social groups," Freeborn said. "And that's something we're continuing to try to do."
- WATCH: Andrew Freeborn discusses emergency preparedness
Freeborn said KCFD is working to build partnerships throughout the community who represent vulnerable residents, such as non-English speakers. Freeborn said they're looking to address those concerns here in Kern County through partnerships with groups like the Dolores Huerta Foundation.
"People need to hear reliable communication. They need to hear it in the language of their heart," he said.
Another partnership KCFD maintains is with the Kern Superintendent of Schools so that buses can be utilized during times of emergency evacuation.
- For resources to stay prepared, visit the Kern County Fire Department's website.
The audit pointed out that since 2013, Cal OES has been expected to update its State Emergency Plan to detail how local governments and nongovernment agencies should mobilize and evacuate people with disabilities or other access and functional needs. According to the audit, Cal OES should advise counties on identifying and locating their vulnerable citizens before a disaster occurs.
This is another factor that Freeborn said is a good idea figuratively, but difficult to put into action. He said those who fall under "vulnerable residents" status, as outlined by the audit, have no way of being located and counted without infringing on their privacy.
"We're here to provide to the needed resources to help individuals, but it's not on us to assume that people can't care for themselves. That would be inappropriate on our part," he said.
Freeborn said many of the alert and response systems KCFD utilizes are op-in systems. People can tailor how they receive emergency alerts. KCFD also works closely with Aging and Adult Services to make sure older adults who need assistance have resources available to them. For other citizens with access and functional needs, Freeborn said many of them already have plans in-place -- like family or caretakers who would assist with evacuation and emergency response needs.
This is why Freeborn said it is important for every individual to have emergency response plans for themselves and their families. These plans should include evacuation measures, routes, and stocked supplies in the home and one's vehicle. He said when a wildfire or an earthquake hits, every second counts. And if evacuation measures are announced, major highways could become clogged with traffic stranding drivers for hours or even days.
The California Highway Patrol recommends every driver keep a roadside emergency kit in their vehicle for times just like this.
KCFD continually looks to address and revise their plans and methods for protecting the community. Freeborn said that every emergency helps them by bringing new experiences and information that they then input into future plans.
"It needs to be that self-review, even if there's not someone that's already given us a guideline. We need to be pushing for what's best," said Freeborn.
They also welcome members of the community to reach out to them with any concerns they have.
"Whenever various community groups are gathering to talk about the needs in their communities, we'd love to participate in that," Freeborn said. "When a large emergency occurs, it's everyone helping everyone. And really whether or not it's a successful outcome it really comes down to each individual in this community."
If you have physical limitations and require evacuation assistance, please call the Aging & Adult Services hotline at 1-855-264-6565