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Ventura County creates app to improve speed, efficiency of evacuations during disasters like brush fires and floods

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KCLU News Photo
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One of the Ventura homes destroyed by the Thomas Fire in December 2017.

App allows incident commanders to get and share information from first responders on evacuation front lines in real time.

The deadly and destructive 2018 Thomas brush fire forced more than 100,000 evacuations in Ventura and Santa Barbara Counties.

But, because of the scope of the 280,000 acre fire, the evacuation process was sometimes cumbersome, as overwhelmed first responders tried to keep up with its growth.

"You have a hundred people out in the community scribbling notes on stencil pads," said Ventura County Sheriff Bill Ayob. "It's just a very inefficient process. And, then you have a significant lag in correlating that information."

Ayub said the Thomas as well as the Woolsey Fire highlighted the problem of trying to evacuate large numbers of people quickly, and safely.

The Ventura County Sheriff’s Office thinks it’s come up with an answer to improve, and speed up the key information gathering process.

It’s developed an app which allows public safety workers on the front lines of disasters like wildfires, floods, and earthquakes to gather evacuation data that can be monitored by incident commanders in real time.

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A new app allowing public safety agencies to share evacuation information during major emergencies like brush fires was unveiled Tuesday in Camarillo.

Ventura County Fire Chief Mark Lorenzen says the app will allow firefighters dealing with a major wildfire to focus on battling the blaze, instead of splitting their time also insuring homes have been evacuated.

"It's for us. It's for emergency responders, and not for public access," said Lorenzen. "It's going to be an app that we as emergency responders are going to be using to coordinate evacuations and give us real time information."

Sheriff Ayob says the app will also track people who have decided not to evacuate, and to shelter in place in their homes during a disaster.

The app was developed internally by the Ventura County Sheriff’s Office.

"This was done by our crew at the Office of Emergency Services, and our Crime and Intelligence analysts," said Ventura County Sheriff’s Commander Eric Buschow.

He said while this app is meant for first responders, the public has already had a simple way to get immediate word of evacuations.

"We have the VC Alert System," said Buschow. People with land line are automatically called during evacuations. But, people with cell phones have to go to vcalert.org to opt in to get notifications.

The county's first responders are hoping their app will provide a powerful new tool in getting people out of harm’s way quickly, and safely.