Community brigades help residents be better prepared 

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Dr. Steven Jensen, Keegan Gibbs, Tyler Hauptman, Brent Woodworth, and LACO Asst. Fire Chief Drew Smith are shown at a press conference for the community brigade program. Contributed Photo

Program aimed to train local citizens to support firefighting, emergency, and prevention efforts  

By Barbara Burke

Special to The Malibu Times

For many Malibuites and residents in other nearby communities who experienced the ravages of the Woolsey Fire, one of the most often-stated reactions and criticisms regarding the communities’ disaster responses was that there were significantly debilitating communication failures during the hours, days and weeks following the conflagration. Citizens have repeatedly discussed how communication failures greatly exacerbated the stress involved in trying to efficiently and effectively fight the fire, trying to evacuate people and animals, trying to assess and address the significant damages caused by the disaster, and for many, trying to get a clear understanding regarding how they could rebuild both structures and their personal lives. 

The stories of devastation are legion, and over the last five and a half years, several studies have been conducted and several initiatives have been launched in the public sector to address those challenges because we all know that it’s not if, but when, another disaster may befall Malibu and nearby communities. 

Many have wondered what, if any, role there is for private citizens as we prepare for future disasters, including developing as much resiliency as possible and having clear disaster preparedness and response plans. 

Community brigades provide a roadmap to resilience, responses during disasters 

Malibu native Keegan Gibbs, who serves on the City of Malibu’s Public Safety Commission and was a central figure in a citizen-based Woolsey Fire response effort known as the “Pt. Dume Bombers,” and Brent Woodworth, chairman and CEO of the nonprofit Los Angeles Emergency Preparedness Foundation, have spearheaded a years-long herculean effort to form community brigades consisting of private individuals who are highly trained and correctly equipped to fight fires. 

The community brigade effort has been a collaborative effort by Gibbs, Woodworth, LA County supervisors, LA County Fire Chief Anthony Marrone and Assistant Chief Drew Smith, and Lost Hills Sheriff Department Capt. Jennifer Seetoo. 

Now, a two-year pilot community brigade program will take efforts toward resiliency and community engagement from concept to reality.

Gibbs serves as the director of operations for the Community Brigade program. Woodworth has been instrumental in developing and implementing the effort. 

“LAEPF was established in 2008 and focuses on engaging business, community, private sector, academic and-faith based resources in disaster preparedness, mitigation, response, and recovery.” Woodworth explained. 

Notably, Woodworth is extensively knowledgeable about preparing for and responding to natural disasters — he has spearheaded disaster response efforts for more than 70 disasters in more than 50 countries. 

“Malibu has faced dozens of fires over the last 70 years,” Gibbs remarked. “However, our approach to addressing the issue at a community level has changed very little. This is an opportunity to draw the line in the sand at the Woolsey Fire, and create cultural change that we can share with future generations, not just in Malibu, but across California. This will be a return to the resilient Malibu of the past, but empowered by joining forces with LA County Fire.

“Community Brigades is a trailblazing pilot program that will help bridge the resource gap between professional first response agencies and local communities during disaster events. The mission is to create lasting cultural change in communities and empower them to better prepare for, respond to, and recover from disasters.” 

The challenges the program addresses include the level and complexity of risks associated with living in the Wildland Urban Interface, helping to clarify the reasonableness of the public’s expectations of government agency capabilities and urging residents to be proactive in their communities’ resilience efforts so as to minimize loss through encouraging and implementing mitigation strategies and expanding available resources and local knowledge through community engagement. That last task that includes developing collaboration and integration of community-based resources. 

One key objective of the program is perhaps one of the most challenging goals — to build trust between agencies that respond to disasters and the communities they serve. 

Memoranda of agreements have been signed between the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors, Los Angeles County Fire Department and LAEPF to launch the brigades, which will strongly focus on efficient communication, prioritizing life safety and hardening structures and properties so as to better prepare for — and better respond to — disasters, including wildfires, earthquakes, floods, and mudslides. The program’s seven pilot communities are Malibu West, Point Dume, Big Rock, Hidden Hills, Corral Canyon, Topanga Canyon, and County Line. 

“The Community Brigade Program is a monumental cultural change in how fire departments work with the community,” Woodworth explained. “It took five years to negotiate the details of the program. The County Board of Supervisors approved the documents in October 2023 — Supervisor Lindsay Horvath and her team were extremely supportive — and we recently gave a program overview to the Malibu City Council.

“The Brigade represents a huge cultural change for how trained citizen volunteers can interact with the largest fire department in the country — the Los Angeles County Fire Department.” 

The vision is to provide trained citizens who can collaborate with first responders and assist citizens during emergencies as well as help residents harden their structures before disasters strike so as to mitigate risk. 

“In formulating the brigade program, we engaged local people involved in the private sector, the nonprofit and faith communities, business sectors, and local, county, state, and federal government agencies.” Woodworth stated, adding that LAEPF is funded by a grant from CalFire and private donations. 

Early on in the effort, The Malibu Foundation provided funding for the program to acquire necessary radio equipment — equipment that will function during a disaster, as opposed to anyone again experiencing the paralyzing communication conundrums that first responders and residents grappled with during and after the Woolsey Fire. 

“We have developed a program that is highly sustainable and operational that can be implemented for many years to come.” Woodworth said. “We also designed the program so it can be replicated by other communities.” 

Taking a stance that if one is forewarned, he can be forearmed, Gibbs noted that a pivotal part of the program involves pre-incident disaster preparedness — the program conducts detailed assessments of residences and companies to determine what steps are necessary to properly harden structures. 

To date, 390 residences in Malibu and surrounding areas have been assessed, according to Woodworth, who added that participating residents receive a free, comprehensive report with colored photos depicting what areas need to be addressed, as well as a video and a written evaluation detailing what residents and business owners can do to mitigate the risks of property destruction. 

Such efforts are of paramount importance — readers may wish to read another article in this edition concerning the Wildfire Insurance Townhall sponsored by the City of Malibu, Assemblywoman Jacqui Irwin and the California Insurance Commission on April 4, which informed attendees that such assessments may prove to be very useful to homeowners and business owners grappling with the challenges they face regarding obtaining and retaining insurance in the current insurance landscape. Due to an exodus of insurance companies leaving the California insurance market, citizens are facing huge challenges in finding insurers who are willing to write policies in Wildland Urban Interface areas. Virtually all of Malibu and the Santa Monica Mountains fall within that classification, Woodworth noted. 

A second keystone objective of the Community Brigade program is to thoroughly train, certify, and educate volunteers in compliance with LA County Fire Department requirements so that volunteers can work within the existing command structure of both the fire and sheriff’s departments. To accomplish those goals, participants are provided with comprehensive training. 

“We ask that those who undertake volunteering make a commitment to serve for at least three years,” Woodworth said. “That is because the Community Brigades makes quite a sizable investment in each individual, both with regard to providing training and in providing them with VHF radios so they can communicate with authorities, with personal protective equipment that costs more than $2,000 for each person and that meets LA County Fire Department standards.” 

All volunteers must undergo complete background checks and training. 

“Volunteers are divided into two designations with different engagement roles,” Woodworth added, noting that those who will be in field operations — those who will be out in the community supporting first responders during an active emergency — must meet all certification and training requirements and they will be designated and insured as volunteer disaster service workers. Their field training will include learning about wildland fire behavior, firefighter training, and field training with apparatus, equipment, and appliances. A second designation is for equally important volunteers who will provide support administratively and who will support communications efforts during disasters. 

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Tyler Hauptman, Brent Woodworth, Keegan Gibbs, and LACO Asst. Fire Chief Drew Smith are shown at a press conference for the community brigade program. Contributed Photo

Citizen involvement opportunities 

People who are interested in volunteering can sign up to express their initial interest here: www.communitybrigade.org

“We already have more than 160 people that have signed up, and we anticipate many more as we continue our community outreach efforts,” Gibbs said. 

The program aims to be fully operational by September, Woodworth stated. 

“Residents should think about it this way — we live in a fireplace and eventually, someone will throw a match into it — the smartest approach to deal with that reality is to be better prepared to identify and mitigate wildfire and other disaster risks, as well as to respond to the emergencies when they happen,” he said. 

Toward that end, Gibbs and Woodworth note, all residents in a Wildland Urban Interface should focus on developing and maintaining a unified approach to disaster preparedness and response because we all share the risk, we all bear the responsibility to do whatever we can to limit fire hazards, and we all share in whatever outcomes occur.