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Sonoma Community Center plans to step up in an emergency

Sonoma Community Center and other agencies are seeking teams of ‘emergency’ volunteers.|

As summer settles in and the landscape around us morphs from green to yellow, rain starts to feel like a distant memory – and fire alerts begin popping up on our phones. Living in the Sonoma Valley means living with the threat of wildfire, and we probably all have stories about how fire (or smoke) have disrupted our lives in the past few years alone.

The good news is that all this experience has taught us a lot about how to prepare for, respond to, and recover from wildfires. We know that it’s crucial to have a plan for your household; we also know that when neighbors support one another during emergencies, the whole community fares better. Several local neighborhoods have now set up Fire Safe Councils or Map My Neighborhood initiatives; a few have even run evacuation drills. The City of Sonoma convenes a monthly group of first responders and community leaders to make sure preparedness stays on everyone’s radar, and the Springs MAC is likewise driving preparedness initiatives.

All of these tools are making a valuable difference in our ability to respond when a fire hits. But we’re not there yet. Without a comprehensive, valley-wide emergency plan, neighborhoods with fewer resources still end up falling through the cracks – just as they did in 2017. And if one area suffers losses, that ultimately means a longer recovery for all of us.

What complicates matters here in the Sonoma Valley is that part of the region is governed by the City, while the remainder falls directly under the County’s jurisdiction. For all intents and purposes (including our lived reality), the City and the Springs are a single community – but on paper we’re not, and that impacts the way government-led emergency protocols play out. What this means in practice is that the Springs miss out on crucial and timely disaster support – because the County is stretched thin, the City’s jurisdiction doesn’t apply, and communities here have special needs. The Springs’ network of narrow, winding streets is densely populated, which poses an evacuation challenge. On top of that, a sizable percentage of households don’t speak English, or include elderly residents with special medical requirements, or have other particular needs that standard emergency resources often don’t account for.

That language barrier is an important issue: resources and information that are distributed only in English have no way of reaching those who don’t speak that language. It leaves a whole community of neighbors out of the loop when it comes to crucial updates about a rapidly evolving situation. Thankfully more and more emergency information and preparedness resources are now bilingual, making a huge difference for Spanish-speaking communities. But more can always be done. Cultural competence is another challenge: without an understanding of the specific needs and barriers that immigrant communities face during disasters, it can be hard for local response services to provide the support and information that’s needed.

An effective valley-wide response network – made up of first responders, government agencies, as well as nonprofits all working together – can help to address these challenges and make sure our entire community is better prepared to face the next wildfire.

A small coalition of local agencies is now trying to build the foundation for something along these lines. The Sonoma Community Center, the Sonoma Valley Collaborative, the Center for Volunteer & Nonprofit Leadership, the Springs MAC, and the City of Sonoma are working together on creating a region-wide, bilingual network of trained on-call emergency volunteers who are ready to step in when disaster strikes, support their community’s response, and more efficiently connect local residents to relief resources. The coalition’s goal here is to accomplish two things. Firstly, this volunteer network will ensure that there are individuals in every part of the Sonoma Valley who know what to do in case of emergency, who can support their neighbors, and who are connected to a variety of local relief and response resources. That last point relates directly to the coalition’s second goal, which is simply to strengthen a region-wide infrastructure of communication. Information-sharing is crucial during disasters, and by deliberately including leaders and volunteers from both the Springs and the City, government and nonprofits, the coalition is trying to lay the groundwork for an easier exchange of resources and updates when the next fire comes.

Anyone can become an on-call emergency volunteer; no prior experience is necessary. The coalition plans to provide free quarterly preparedness and response training opportunities to all volunteers who sign up. Volunteer opportunities will never be mandatory; all service is optional. All on-call volunteers will receive a monthly newsletter from the coalition with information about upcoming trainings, current volunteer opportunities, and other preparedness resources.

For more information about becoming an on-call emergency volunteer, or about the Emergency Volunteer Coalition, reach out to Charlotte Hajer at charlotte@sonomacommunitycenter.org or 931-4166. To sign up for the on-call volunteer list, visit sonomacommunitycenter.org/get-involved/volunteer.

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