The 1991 Oakland-Berkeley firestorm wiped out swaths of the East Bay hills. Credit: Cal OES

With fire season fast approaching, Alameda County residents will soon have another number to etch in their memory cells, along with phone, address, and date of birth.

Their zone. Specifically, their evacuation zone.

In two weeks, Oakland and the rest of Alameda County are slated to launch a new evacuation software system called Zonehaven. The Zonehaven go-live date is scheduled for June 15, barring last-minute changes.

All county residents will live in a zone identified by a number. Businesses are located in zones, as well.

What does this mean for you?

The Oaklandside’s sister newsroom, Berkeleyside, had conversations with Charlie Crocker, the founder and CEO of Zonehaven, and Berkeley Assistant Fire Chief Keith May, who oversees fire department special operations.

Here’s what was learned:

Q. Zonehaven basics — what is it? 

A. A software program that uses an algorithm incorporating various factors or inputs affecting disasters or emergency events to produce a digital evacuation map or real-time guide is based on pre-set community zones.

These factors include weather, traffic flows, street design, historical disaster data, geography, and more. They are used to build a communitywide (city or county or whatever entity is purchasing the program) baseline digital map of evacuation zones.

During an emergency, relevant additional data is fed into the map, showing risks over zones, such as the incident location, wind speeds and directions.

Zonehaven is a digital application or software for use on a smartphone, computer or tablet.

First responders use the program to guide decision-making around if, when, and where to order evacuations or evacuation warnings. Residents of affected zones are alerted using a variety of means, including the county alert system (AC Alert), Nixle local alerts, social media such as Twitter and Facebook, and old-fashioned door-to-door warnings.

Zonehaven also interfaces with Waze, real-time GPS-guided traffic maps.

Zones are built by local emergency planners in collaboration with Zonehaven.  Berkeley developed evacuation zones in 2019, which Zonehaven fine-tuned, May said.

“Evacuation management is a completely new sport,” said Crocker of Zonehaven. “It’s been done in ad hoc fashion for 100 years; it works, but it’s also time-consuming. If you can save five minutes, you can save lives; if you can save an hour, you can save lives.

“Zonehaven reduces the time to order an evacuation. Things just go a ton faster. That’s the most simple value proposition we see coming out of this.”

Q. What is an evacuation zone?

A. “An evacuation zone is a portion of the community that has been sliced out to most effectively call for and manage evacuation,” Crocker said. Zones almost always stay constant unless there is a significant change such as new development — buildings or roadways.

Q. Why now?

A. The increased urban risks from wildland fire are spurring interest in evacuation planning throughout the western United States, including California and the Bay Area. Alameda County’s adoption of Zonehaven is timed for fire season.

“It’s been a labor of love,” said May, who oversees evacuation operations for the Berkeley Fire Department. “I’ve been working on this for a year and a half. We wanted to go live by this fire season. We’re a little late.”

May, who also represents Berkeley in countywide emergency planning, said the city has been practicing with Zonehaven for more than a year, holding drills using different scenarios. When the software goes live, he said, first responders will have experience using it.

Q. Is Zonehaven useful for people who don’t live near wildland fire risks?

A.  Fire prevention experts in Berkeley often point to the city’s destructive 1923 fire, which started east of the hills in open space but roared over the hills and into downtown to Shattuck Avenue.

The startup team behind Zonehaven, which had close ties with first responders, was motivated by California’s recent and tragic fires, Crocker said.  But the program can be adapted for many kinds of evacuations, including those related to earthquakes, flooding, tsunamis, and even active shooter events.

Q. Who sees the maps? 

A. Zonehaven has two products, Evac and Aware. They’re usually packed together — a behind-the-scenes program for emergency planners and a public-facing program for residents. Both will be available in Alameda County.

What’s the difference? Evac is a program for first responders and emergency planners and billed as an evacuation management tool. Police and fire can feed the software information during incidents and for practices and drills.

Aware is a community portal with evacuation updates and prevention tools. Crocker described the two programs as “intimately connected.”

Evac has more detailed information and resources for agency planners. “Changes are immediately made available on the community Aware site,” Crocker said.

Q. What if the power goes out?

A.  It takes power to run Zonehaven, and if this goes out, so does the data crunching. “If those things go down, there are things that don’t work anymore. We’re in the same boat as Waze and Google,” Crocker said.

As long as one computer has power to run the program, even if it’s out of the incident area, valuable information can be transmitted to first responders via hand radios, Crocker said.

And as long as a computer has battery power, some Zonehaven maps can still be used in static mode.

“We provide the ability to download some of the maps on their devices, so they can look at them if the power goes out,” Crocker said.

And when batteries die, there is still paper. Zonehaven provides agencies with a hardcopy — paper — map book. “They can pull out their map book and use their radio.” The map book allows police and fire to order evacuations by zone rather than try to describe evacuation areas by street names. “It’s so much easier for them to communicate using the zones,” Crocker said.

He also said that internet providers, cellphone providers, and electrical companies including PG&E, are learning from past disasters such as the North Bay fires and building backup power sources into their systems such as battery-operated generators or solar generators.

Q. What should I do now?

A. Emergency planners are asking residents to immediately do a few things to prepare for Zonehaven:

  • Know your zone. As soon as the program is live, you can enter your address on the website to learn your zone. “Bookmark and keep going back to it,” May said.
  • Sign up for Alameda County emergency alerts, or ACAlert, which sends alerts via phone (cell and landline), text, and email. Zonehaven zones are already built into the ACAlert program. You can sign up online, or for emergency and nonemergency alerts such as traffic accidents, download the ACAlert app.
  • Also, sign up for Nixle alerts from Berkeley police and fire.

“Be ready to receive information,” May said.

Of course, there are many more steps residents can take to prepare for emergencies and for evacuations. Check the city’s Office of Emergency Services website for resources.

Q. Who decides to order an evacuation?

A.  Law enforcement has the legal authority to order an evacuation, but during emergencies they usually work hand-in-hand with fire departments and offices of emergency services.

Q. Will I learn where to go?

A. In the language of emergency planning, the place people are directed to during an evacuation is called an arrival point. Zonehaven maps include arrival points, which may change quickly depending on the incident. Arrival points can be a temporary evacuation place or longer term.

By looking at the map, people learn, Crocker said: “What zone they’re in, where the incident is, specific instructions for their zone, zone status, and arrival points when available.”

An arrival place could be a community center, shelter, place to receive hotel vouchers, or meet up with your friends and family.

Q. Who is paying for this, and how much?

A. The Alameda County contract with Zonehaven is funded through a grant from the Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA). No city of Berkeley funds are being used, May said. The contract is for five years. (We asked for the countywide cost and haven’t received this information yet.)

Zonehaven charges based on population size, Crocker said.

Q. Who’s using Zonehaven in the Bay Area now?

A. The following counties have or will soon have contracts with Zonehaven, Crocker said: Sonoma, Marin, Napa, Lake, Santa Cruz, Santa Clara, San Mateo, Contra Costa, and parts of San Francisco (the Presidio). The program is also being used in other parts of the state as well as in Oregon.

Q. Where has Zonehaven been used to date, and lessons learned?

A. Santa Cruz, Santa Clara and San Mateo counties used Zonehaven, to different extents, during the 2020 CZU Lightning Complex Fire and the post-fire debris flow hazards. Lessons learned from this, and other disasters, Crocker said, include:

  • Repopulation takes longer than evacuations (five days to evacuate, several months to recover)
  • Multiple (contiguous) county mapping and planning are needed. “Single evacuation view is needed across multiple counties.” Incident level information needed, not jurisdictional level.
  • When different maps are used for evacuation planning, information can be confusing and disparate.

Q. What will Zonehaven add that first responders in cities like Oakland and Berkeley don’t currently have to help with evacuations?

A. May, Crocker and other Zonehaven fans like to compare the tool to “the old days” of first responders huddled over maps laid out on truck hoods in the middle of a disaster.

“The first incident commander sets up the command center and whips out a big map on their hood,” said May, who helped fight the Tubbs fire in Santa Rosa with Berkeley crews. He also happens to live there.

The first decisions they must make, he said, are what areas can be fought, potentially saving property and lives, and what areas should be immediately evacuated, to save lives. “Are we going to fight this or evacuate?”

Once decisions are made, using incident information coming in from many sources such as responders on the ground and helicopters overhead, they must be communicated quickly, “to everyone coming in to help, fire, law, media, the public,” May said.

This is done by all means — calls, emails, text messages, door to door. The hope, he said, is that the message doesn’t change as it goes from person to person.

“That’s always been how we’ve done it; it’s not the best,” May said.

“Zonehaven lets us get the information out quickly and put it on a platform that any responding agency can see.”

The software also allows agencies to train for various emergencies and scenarios. “It helps us build and maintain our evacuation plans.”

Q. What are we leaving out?

A. “We love our first responders; they’re amazing, but they’re humans, and they have limited resources,” Crocker said. “At many levels, we’re responsible for our destiny.  We love the Bay Area. It’s beautiful, but we know it comes with risks. We have to take ownership ourselves of that risk. We can’t outsource that 100% to our first responders.”

Taking responsibility for emergency preparedness differs based on the type of emergency, of course, but includes protecting your property by creating defensive space in areas of wildfire risk; reaching out in advance to neighbors who may need assistance in an evacuation to make sure they have a plan; signing up for alerts, and preemptively leaving your house and relocating in high-risk conditions such as red flag fire warnings.