"If you're just doing a very limited role and not maximizing your contribution, you're selling yourself short. And it's probably not why you were selected." -Aristotle Wolfe
SERIES: Role of the Public Sector
"To Protect and To Serve" is more than a motto. It is a vow that every police officer must take seriously. What does it mean to be a police officer in the middle of a disaster? What roles and responsibilities do they have? What is the best approach to protect and serve? What lessons can we learn about communication and evacuation? How can we fill the gap and fine-tune our strategies to build resiliency and encourage cooperation? What can citizens do to support the work and the people doing the work? How can leaders stand up as a leader of leaders, leader of a team, and a leader for themselves and their families? These are important questions that have life-saving answers. Listen in as Jennifer and CHP officer Aristotle Wolfe walk you through the life of a police officer.
- 04:50: A Unique Job Description
- 09:51: What The Job Means
- 19:05: Who Plays Which Role?
- 26:21: Communication Lessons
- 33:47: Leader of Leaders
- 44:51: What People Can Do
- 48:12: Be a Human Being
- 57:21: Maximize Your Role
14:21: "Work with a unified purpose but within your own individual mission and not violating your own values as an organization." -Aristotle Wolfe
17:08: "Sometimes it's important to know who you need to separate from operations because their role in the time is not necessarily the resources on the ground during the fire." -Aristotle Wolfe
17:44: "Have a plan of what to do with your elected officials ahead of time. Elected officials are the public face of public policy in your local area but they are not incident commanders. They should be there to communicate and to provide leadership in the way of solace. " -Jennifer Thompson
22:49: "If it's a gap you can fill, seek out how to do it, but share it with those people that are supposed to fill it so that next time we can fine-tune those lanes." -Aristotle Wolfe
27:01: "There's no perfect communication. Concentrate how the message is going to go out and when to send it." -Aristotle Wolfe
38:30: "What you're trying to do is control chaos. You can never quite control it but you can meter it and you can help people navigate through it. and you can get better." -Aristotle Wolfe
42:11: "Knowing that they were part of something good helps them be resilient and want to do it again. It gives them meaning." -Aristotle Wolfe
46:13: "A [person] who isn't there to do their profession properly is just another person adding to the problem." -Aristotle Wolfe
51:40: "We all took this job because we thought it was a meaningful job. And you have to constantly remind people that it is."-Aristotle Wolfe
57:34: "Be curious about what your role could be, what successful people in that role have done, and learn a little bit more than just your contribution." -Aristotle Wolfe
58:35: "If you're just doing a very limited role and not maximizing your contribution, you're selling yourself short. And it's probably not why you were selected." -Aristotle Wolfe
Aristotle Wolfe is an English major turned CHP officer. He is now serving as the Assistant Chief of California Highway Patrol based in Redding, CA. He is a California native who has worked on inter-agency task forces with local, state, and federal partners. He served in various roles in many places including Santa Rosa, San Francisco, and Marin CHP areas. Today, he happily maximizes his role providing "the highest level of safety, service, and security to citizens he serves" with the support of his lovely wife, Rayne Wolfe.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: Welcome to the podcast, How To Disaster, recover, rebuild and reimagine.
Today, I'm really excited to bring you a personal friend and somebody who's done an amazing amount of public service, Aristotle Wolfe. I asked if you would come on this program to talk about disaster from his point of view and his decades of service in the California Highway Patrol. The title of this episode is How To Protect and Serve. There are so many elements that go into this from how do you show up day after day for very long shifts to try to do the wrong thing. I'm excited to talk to you today about what it means to be a police officer in the middle of a disaster, especially within an area that has undergone several disasters. One after the other, and people are fatigued. Our firefighters and our first responders, including law enforcement have been called into service in the past few years in a way that is a little bit different than before. It has really, of course caused some internal questions about what are the best ways to approach protecting and serving during a disaster? How can we learn more about evacuations? What can we do from a citizens perspective to not only support their work, but how do we take care of our own families in a way that we make sure that it doesn't get in the way. And it's also effective, we need to sort of free our first responders to take care of both themselves. Remember, they have families to go home to as well. And at the same time, we need to get our families out safely. And there's this, we also want to protect our property when it's possible. None of this isn't messy. None of this is simple. It's always a learning process.
I especially value Ari's approach to learning. And what you're going to find out today is he's actually the English major turned law enforcement CHP officer and he brings that sort of humanity to his job each and every day. I just really want to welcome Aristotle Wolfe to the How To Disaster podcast. Welcome Aristotle Wolfe to another podcast in How To Disaster. I'd like you to start today by talking to us about what is your official title? What is your role? How long have you been at the CHP? Before we get into that though, I do want to disclose as I did in the intro that I've known Ari for about 20 years, and I met him through his wife who was a press democrat reporter at the time she came to my classroom to talk to them about how to do media. And I have a lot of respect for Ari. I've watched him rise over the years in his position, and I'm very pleased to have him with us today.
Aristotle Wolfe: Jen, it's great to be here. And ditto all around, I've known Jen for an equal amount of years, obviously. We've had good times going out with you and your son to our Christmas movies and things like that. But also, it's amazing, the work that you do now and how much they parallel. I think it's really great that ReBuild Northbay is happening and that we could connect this way. I appreciate you reaching out.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: Sorry, I'm always saying your name wrong. I don't know, I'm just--
Aristotle Wolfe: I'm just gonna do it for everybody, but it doesn't matter because I get it from friends for years. Rhymes with Harry.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: I always call you Ary, but then I was like Ari, and then I got sick.
Aristotle Wolfe: Aristotle, Ari.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: Aristotle, I've spent a lot of Christmases with you just for the audience to know, you are not an unfamiliar person to me. Anyway, what I want you to do first is can you tell our audience what is your title? What do you do? We know you're part of California Highway Patrol, but what are you doing now? And give us a little bit about your background, especially love the fact that you're an English major and it turned into a CHP officer.
Aristotle Wolfe: Okay, well, that's annoying to everybody that has to write any work that I have to review. But that just was in preparing for law. It was a good writing background, and I did like literature, and I thought I was going to be a teacher, then a lawyer, then this. But yeah, I'm currently an Assistant Chief in Highway Patrol, and I'm up in the northern division now. I'm stationed out of reading, which is also a place that's no stranger to wildland fires and disaster. But to give some context to some of the past few years in Sonoma County, I was the CHP commander, which is a captain rank, but a commander of the area of the base, essentially the Sonoma County Office of the CHP. We call it the Santa Rosa area, but that's inaccurate, it covers most of Sonoma County. So we had experience there, and I was fortunate enough to fleet and work with some really great officers there, but also some great partners at the County Office of Emergency Services in the fire services, all of our allied agencies, and watch the sheriff work through some very difficult times. So that's my context. I think most of what my experience I would draw from talking to you today.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: So take us to the moment that we've had so many, for those who are unfamiliar in the audience, we've had a lot of what we call mega fires here. Really, a different type of fire, burns very hot, runs very fast and requires a little bit different response in how you approach evacuations, how you approach keeping the public safe and keeping the first responders safe. So say, if we took your most recent fire you were involved in, and then talk about like the phone rings, and then you have to steal yourself and get ready. What does that look like?
Aristotle Wolfe: Well, it's interesting, we, the Highway Patrol, right now have kind of a video tutorial for all of our folks on wildland fires. It's pretty comprehensive, and I was introduced to a new term called Giga Fire, which is when over a million acres burned. And unfortunately, that is our reality these days. It really depends. But I will say, as far as you know what that looks like, if it's caught in the middle of night, wakes you up and catches you unaware, that's one thing. I've watched the growth over the past few years in Sonoma County, we are getting better at not having these so unpredictable. Knowing that PG&E has their PSPS, their Power Shut offs for these things that gets everyone in a heightened state of awareness during those first rounds of those, even the county EEOC goes active and we've increased our communications with them. So we're aware, we can tell our staff to prepare not only at work and mentally prepare for those long hours and extra provisions they may have, but to get their families noticed, and have a plan for themselves, which is all sort of, it all builds off each other. So it's gotten better.
There have been times when I've gotten a call in the middle of night and we just need to evacuate somewhere. But I don't do that work. The folks that work with me do it. They're out on patrol, they're doing the hard work. And just keeping them prepared is really what I think my role is. So that phone call scares me less nowadays because I think the preparation is much better. But I also have a little background in Homeland Security studies. They have what they call Black Swan events. And I think the 2017 fire was a bit of a Black Swan. I was not here for it, but I was in Europe and it looked like our county was under attack. I couldn't believe it, just watching the news clips. There's always that element that you're never entirely prepared, but it's gotten better and better. I really trust the systems we have in place. I know how people feel, and I often feel the same. Government is slow to work, but I think our response to fires lately in Sonoma County has been government work.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: I think that in particular from the perspective of how we watch first responders, I think it's worked really well. I think we're always evolving for how we, as civilians, can be better at partnering and making sure that we are also prepared. And sometimes, there is a lot of frustration with evacuations which should be done. There's a lot of armchair experts on Facebook. I've been very impressed by how our first responders have changed their approach, or improved, or upped their game quite a bit since 2017. And we have fires that should have taken out another 6,000 units of housing, and yet, they haven't. Can you talk about, there has to be from a coordinating standpoint, a little bit different approach a lot more, and then would you talk about how important it is to have the alerts on your phone. The tools that civilians need, but also some of the tools that you guys have laid in including better communication with the EEOC is a great idea, but laid in because the response is so much better that you kind of know what you're dealing with in these giga fires or mega fires.
Aristotle Wolfe: Okay, so that was a lot. I don't have much. My agency doesn't have much to do with the alerts, but the alerts have been very useful and they've had their glitches that can cause mistrust. But I think we've essentially messaged very well on that when I say we give a lot of credit to the county Emergency Services Office, they have done an excellent job. And when they make a mistake, they get that information to the public and say, Hey, you were warned of this, but it's not happening there. Or it's because you have cell phone service here and there, and I don't know the technical things, but they've been very good about that. But I also think the community is in a position that they want to pay attention. So some of these tools have existed for years and just weren't used, which is sort of the law of imminence that you're going to solve the problem that's in front of you. So if they weren't quite up to par, it wasn't as big of an issue, perhaps, for the county stakeholders to work out the kinks because people weren't on it. And now that they're on them, they're on Nixle and different alert services, I think we've seen what a great tool it is. That is fantastic as far as you were saying that you see emergency services better at responding, I think the public has been better.
And one of the things that I would say, again, having not been here in 2017, and that was a middle of the night fire that sort of snuck up on everyone versus the Kincade, which we could see coming over ride. It was fast, but we were ready for it. So it's a little bit different. We had talked to those people in eastern Santa Rosa and into the Sonoma Valley about a plan as well. So that helped, all of that help. But people are paying attention. And the big difference I think is people are recognizing that we aren't, we built the trust, we built the systems, they recognize that even if there are missteps and Monday morning quarterbacking, they're just getting out of the way. And that's huge because, I've heard it from my firefighter colleagues, and I don't do that kind of heroic work. Fire scares me so I stay away from them. But if they're worrying about rescuing people, they are not concentrating on the problem which is getting that fire under control. And then all those things that come with it, we're not just talking about getting people out, accounting for them and relocating them, we're relocating their livestock, we're getting things set up for that and it's all moving independently and together. And one huge concentration of having to save people distracts all of the resources away from some of those other efforts. And then there's long term strategic things we're trying to get them back in, we're already thinking about repopulation. And when I say WE, I'm not doing this work, I'm just part of a team of teams that's doing this work.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: It's actually hard sometimes, or I think it looks more difficult to pre 2017 in an inter agency coordination, and that it has to work. And if say that you are, say somebody is listening to this and they know that there's a breakdown, it could be personality conflicts. A lot of our concerns about rural areas, your agencies have to work together. And that's not always as easy as it looks. And even if it's what people should do, it can be difficult.
"Work with a unified purpose but within your own individual mission and not violating your own values as an organization." -Aristotle Wolfe
Aristotle Wolfe: Yeah. And when you say personalities, look, I've probably been guilty of this. But as the leader of a team that wants to be effective within this team of teams, first of all, I've got to be bigger than that. So to the other people, and I think most of these folks are professionals and they recognize that. So I have not, I wouldn't say never in my career, but local lately in regard to these fires and the floods because they were very similar in our response, I have seen that personalities take a backseat. But it is also because we understand that this is an ongoing issue. It requires planning, it requires maintenance. So this isn't the first time we're talking. And I think in the past, sometimes that is the case, you're not called to the table. I didn't realize how important the health department, for example, would be to a repopulation effort. So now, at the very least, law enforcement, and not necessarily me although I do talk to the health department, but we recognize that we need to talk with those folks. In other times, we need to talk to Ag because there's agriculture passes that become an impediment to good flow of letting the right people in and out of these zones. And that hurts my folks in the field, it all comes back to us. So what I've really learned to do is working with a unified purpose, but within your own individual mission and not violating your own values as an organization. And if you can do that, it tamps down the effect of personality.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: We would like people who are not in fire affected communities yet, but are instead in fire vulnerable communities, which is actually most of the American West, to think in terms of just to build resilience into our systems. Even if once a year we sat down with all of our agencies and we worked through a plan for, if we do have, the giga fire is a million acres or more. The mega fire is a fire that's huge, but has an impact that is so devastating. That's just a different type of disaster. So you can be both a mega fire and giga fire. But it would be a great idea, I hope you agree. I mean, I think you're going to agree with this in communities that haven't gone through this to just build in the resilience of making sure that you have connected all those dots around relationships. Often, before something bad happens, humans are really good at magical thinking which is like, I didn't know anything about wildfire before 2017. Certainly didn't seem like a weed problem. Do you know it wasn't? So would you advise the same? Is it all those agencies in those big counties, especially that they take time. Do you like a tabletop exercises? Or have you done one of those?
Aristotle Wolfe: I have. Not as much for fires, but some other issues. A lot of times, they have to do with a human threat. Like a terrorist issue, or whatever. And we've done some earthquake planning. Unfortunately, we've gotten enough practice lately with fires. That tabletop happens at an actual table and map table within a callfire tent. But, yeah, certainly, it's hugely important. And again, the Highway Patrol's role here is we're not in charge of these things. I mean, we're in charge of our roadways, etc. But we are a force that the state can bring to bear at any locality. But one thing that sometimes we're guilty of because of that, because we're often coming from the outside. Even though I'm the local area commander, I couldn't do it without surrounding CHP areas. If I'm not connected with those agencies in there, then what I'm not doing is my work because the outside CHP officers coming in, and my commanders that are leading our whole division, they need to know that we have inroads and relationships, and that we have done some planning.
"Sometimes it's important to know who you need to separate from operations because their role in the time is not necessarily the resources on the ground during the fire." -Aristotle Wolfe
And I think tabletops are one great way to do it. The gap I find with tabletops is kind of, I think you're alluding to it, which is getting the community stakeholders involved, making sure you don't always know who you need at the table. So every opportunity to identify somebody like that, I think you've got to bring them to the table. I also think that sometimes, it's important to know who you need to separate from operations and bring them into maybe just messaging or just logistics because their role in the time is not necessarily the resources on the ground during the fire. It is the before, the after the resilience, the community messaging. And if they're involved in too much, they can get overwhelmed. And if they're not involved enough, they feel like they're left out to dry.
"Have a plan of what to do with your elected officials ahead of time. Elected officials are the public face of public policy in your local area but they are not incident commanders. They should be there to communicate and to provide leadership in the way of solace. " -Jennifer Thompson
Jennifer Gray Thompson: I'm lazy, I can say it, you can't say. I would I hear when I hear you say that maybe that's not what you mean. But one of my concerns, one of my pieces of advice and areas of concern is, have a plan of what to do with your elected officials ahead of time. I know you're not able to speak to this, but I can. Elected officials are the public face of public policy in your local area. But they are not incident commanders, and they do not run EEOC. That's not even in their lane, or their wheelhouse nurse shouldn't even be expected. They should be there to communicate and to provide leadership in the way of solace to have conversations with their directors, and leaders, and partners, and all of this. One of the really great things I thought that Napa did is they assigned their supervisors. So if it was a federal issue that this supervisor would take it, if it was a state issue, the supervisor would take it. And I think that it freed up some bandwidth amongst the staff to do some really efficient and incredible communication that I still hear about to this day. I definitely think the county of Sonoma had not undergone the earthquake in the same way that was the training ground for that system in 2015. But always be working towards making sure that you do have a plan for your electives because they do want to be of service and put them in a lane that they feel effective. And that actually is good for communicating with the public. Because otherwise, it can get messy. Let's be honest.
Aristotle Wolfe: Well, I think that that is not something that impacted me directly in these fires. I don't generally deal with our elected officials, generally just the state ones in official capacity, because they have something to do with them if we work for them, so to speak, as part of California. But I certainly do have relationships with all the other supervisors in Sonoma County, or I did when I was assigned there. And I will say that by the time I came to this game, they were very clear on that. They were clear, I don't mean they were being told to do it. They totally got their role. I don't know if there was any time that that wasn't true with these particular individuals, but I was very impressed. And also to your point, they definitely need to be involved, but they have other outside pressures that they have to answer to, that maybe it's not appropriate at the moment.
But what's great is when they're involved to some degree, and I love the way Cal Fire does it, it has different meanings for different people. You know something about the incident command system, right? And they're not in the operations. They're not even in the logistics part of incident command. But if they're not there and aware one, they can't message the way we, they can message better than anyone because their constituents listen to them. Linda Hopkins did some amazing work during the last round of fires and floods with messaging the public. I thought it was great. Supervisor Gore is a hands on guy. He wants to be in there, but he gets it. So he was on the ground, I ran into them. Supervisor [inaudible], I ran into them. But CAL FIRE has a cooperators meeting that they do, and that's when they get to come in every day. There's a cooperators meeting. I've seen our senators there, Mike McGuire is so ubiquitous, He's everywhere. So on top of it, he's making sure--
Jennifer Gray Thompson: That he's ubiquitous. He runs on like two hours asleep in M&M's,
Aristotle Wolfe: I don't say I'll do, but I'm amazed because I know how much I work during these things. And they are working hard. But the thing is, if they don't see that in the moment, they can never make decisions, policy decisions and get us the stuff we need later. But whoever worked on getting air tankers, they want to see those air tankers working. So those cooperator meetings are great. That's when you bring in some of the people that aren't part of operations, but they're affected by the other utilities that are not maybe your main infrastructure. So everybody gets information, and Cal Fire is a model when they're incident management teams come in for these, which is basically, I know you know this Jen, but just for people listening. When they take the locals out of running the incident command and make them part of their larger structure, they are amazing. And I think a lot of government agencies, especially police, could learn from their model. Because we are not, as I'm just going to say, and I'm going to get a stone's throw out hurled at me when I leave here.
"If it's a gap you can fill, seek out how to do it, but share it with those people that are supposed to fill it so that next time we can fine-tune those lanes." -Aristotle Wolfe
But firefighters are better at incident command systems than cops. Cops have a great adaptive capacity in the field to make decisions based on their policies. But when it comes down to these huge team things, they have it down, and they know how to handle us too. They have dedicated law enforcement liaison officers who are embedded people from different police forces, including the California Highway Patrol, that help. And it's just helping everybody's awareness be better, and that's all I try to do. I try to fill communication gaps when I can. I try to seek out communication because in the day, in the fire, during the disaster, I'm not doing the work, but that's the work I owe my own troops. And it's the work I think I owe the public. And I think it's all speaking to your point about communicating, but also understanding your role. And that's great just maximizing that role, what can you do in your role? And if it's outside your role, if you don't have a policy or procedure against it, and it's not against the values of your organization, if there's a gap, you can fill, seek out how to do it. But then share it with those people that are supposed to fill it so that next time, we can fine tune those lanes. Lanes are important. But being able to go outside of them is why we pay humans to do most of these jobs and not robots.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: I really appreciate that as a sentiment, that everyone should have their lanes. You don't want to go into somebody's lane. But if you see an opportunity to serve better, and then maybe inform better in the future. And if it doesn't violate ethics or policy, then that is really just an opportunity. It's what we call a gap. And our business model is based upon finding gaps and filling them, not duplicating what other people are doing. We'd like to amplify what people are doing and support their work, but we're not interested in pretending like we know how to do, say insurance or law enforcement during a disaster. And instead, it's like, how can we show the public also what you do, then praise and amplify, but also call into account when it's appropriate in a functional way.
And what we were talking, you reminded me of 2017. There were two Santa Rosa police officers who had a car and they kept running it at FountainGrove to get more people until the car blew up. Because what they were doing was, it was in their lane but also outside of their lane. And they knew that there was an emergency situation. It was the right and ethical thing to do to great harm, peril and danger to their own lives. But they kept running it to get people to their car blew up. And their response, it wasn't like our car blew up. I guess that said they were like, is there another car we can grab? And so that's what they did. So in a disaster, you have to have some room for doing the right thing in that moment where you know that it's not duplicating, it is augmenting, and then you can learn lessons from that in the future. So that's how I see it by giving your elected officials ahead of time, I think makes them much more functional. We forget often from the public point of view that we are undergoing this disaster. All of our public sector leaders are too.
Aristotle Wolfe: Absolutely. And I think they're answering to the public more directly than we are. And I've seen some pretty good work done. But again, it's not my first line of communication. But I've seen some pretty good work done in that regard. Those cooperators meaning too, don't leave them in a vacuum because that would be horrible as well, because they need to know there's a time and a place to get them involved. And I've seen them totally get it. I think they like knowing that clarity makes a big difference to them of like, where is our role? Okay, we have one. And this is how we can, as you said, amplify it.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: Yeah. So I wanted to talk to you about a couple of things specifically. One of them is from a citizens perspective to get information that is vetted and there's a lot of sharing on social media when these things happen, and a lot of opinions. Some of those are great, but in the midst of a great disaster, it's really important that people actually follow the CHP on Twitter, for example. Can you talk about the role that public information comes out in the CHP and how often it's updated, it's updated all of the time, it can really be a life saving endeavor to make sure that you're paying attention to official sources.
"There's no perfect communication. Concentrate how the message is going to go out and when to send it." -Aristotle Wolfe
Aristotle Wolfe: Yeah. Generally, again, since we're not necessarily the lead on these disasters, generally the sheriff is making the big decisions with a lot of input from Cal Fire. For example in fires, as far as evacuations, etc. So we will try to complement and amplify their message. We will re-message, but also during these incidents, as you know, there's County's emergency operation center, there's the incident command post down the Cal Fire place. The sheriff is operating out of their place, but we do kind of embed people in each place. And we've gotten better and better about that, everything's, it's still imperfect because there's no perfect communication. But what they generally try to do is that's probably what they concentrate on the most in the planning on how the message is going to go out and when to send it.
What we will do is we'll make sure that our public information officer meets the Cal Fire Information Officer. We don't generally staff, but the county does sometimes operate a joint outreach and communication center that they kind of pull up their different agencies' Information Officer so we'll at least drop by. I just don't have the staff to staff, that full time, but our RPI, our public information officer will go there, introduce themselves. And then what they'll do is they'll follow each other's feeds and make sure that they are liking or adding maybe a little bit of our public safety message to it, but making sure that we're retweeting it, or reposting it on Facebook or Instagram. So we do a lot of that. And then we also, there are a few things we might do on top of that, like maybe extrapolated out to the greater Bay Area because we have a traffic management center that handles all of our message boards.
So last, during the lightning complex fire. I remembered that during the Kincafe, we had an issue with stop lights when they go out, when they come back on, there's issues of how they're going to cycle. So that was something we had to iron out with the local PDs at the off ramps, and with Caltrans, and with county roads. But one of the other problems was stuck with them going out in general. I don't remember, but I remember calling them and going, how can we make this fit on a signboard? We need to tell people that lights are out and to stop. So they did come up with something catchy. And unfortunately, I don't remember what it was because you're limited to how many words can fit on those sides. But those are other things that we will do to amplify a local message and kind of bring it out. That messaging is important. But generally speaking, the highway patrol just compliment messaging on this. We don't create it because we don't want to send the wrong message, we want to make sure it's the same message that's being sent from the county ESC and from Cal Fire.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: But the lesson itself is making sure that you are on the same page, that you are on the same messaging and that's why we always want to encourage people to pay attention to an official source. Cite this source, retweet this source, read. If you're gonna put it on Facebook, cite the source because it is smart and wonderful as people are. We are not trained in that, and so it's a good idea to look for people who are trained in what I'm hearing from you. Just to put some clarity into this is that the CHP plays a really important role of support, how can we fit in into this lane and help you? And then there are certain things that we can draw attention to the logos, other local officials like the sheriff's department because the CHP is so much larger too. That's what people have to understand. It's a state agency. So even their lines don't draw neatly around a county. So would you say that that's accurate? Just so people understand what the role of the CHP would be?
Aristotle Wolfe: Yeah. Absolutely, it's a support role. We are in charge of the highways, the sheriff wants to close them. Generally speaking, we are working, we're not disagreeing with that. We're not making those decisions about evacuations. But if they want to close a county road, it is our charter to do that. And we're in charge of the county roads. So that is our jurisdiction.
But again, it means you have to have relationships upfront, you have to understand each other's priorities. And eventually, we need an exit plan. If we're closing these for too long, because every time a CHP officer comes from San Jose to handle a fire or works to fire, somebody in San Jose is on the side of the road longer than they should be. So all resources are finite and they're competitive. And during the disaster, the disaster is the primary thing. But that support role, having that good communication lets us free up resources and get the proper ones in if we're just filling a gap. But you talk about filling gaps, and that's one thing, we just have the capacity to do so because we can flood people in before mutual aid can even take effect. So the sheriff is in charge and can activate a county or a statewide mutual aid request and get all kinds of people. There'll be someone from a junior college down in the South Bay. Might be on an intersection in Santa Rosa, but it takes time. And we are a quick reaction force. And then some of it is just our job, and we'll just do it, but we have a finite amount of resources. So then, we depend on that mutual aid to help us with our role. So yeah, we are a support agency. But we're also kind of, we have a lot especially in Sonoma County. I mean, I think we're the third largest agency, if you think about it.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: We have a lot of roads in Sonoma County that are unincorporated. For those of you who don't know why the sheriff has one function, the CHP is really in charge of roads. Most people don't understand the difference between the highway. It's so interesting thing we're working in Southern Oregon, and I was just having a conversation. It was during one of their burn scars, it's right over the California state border. One of the things that I was just wondering, what tread is in trust states coordination is there for wildfires and lessons learned that are shared and coordinated between, say like the state of Oregon in the state of California.
Aristotle Wolfe: Well, there are definitely cooperative efforts. And it's interesting because I never had a border in my, I was in the Golden Gate division which is the base, essentially the Bay Area for most of my career for about 25 years. I'm now up in the northern division that borders Oregon and Nevada. And it is interesting, I haven't had the experience with fire, but we have had it with some of these large snow events. So there is not only a conversation between law enforcement, but also between O-D-O-T, ODOT, or their version of Caltrans and Caltrans. So yeah, those conversations happen and those exercises happen.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: An opportunity because Oregon had never had wildfires like they did last year. They'd not had a mega fire, and they certainly didn't have them all across their state. And it had been an incredible challenge and learning experience for them. I think that one of the things that we try to emulate at ReBuild Northbay that we see the first responders do is that element of mutual aid, like there are systems in place to go deploy, to make sure that you are amplifying the capacity on that side. So in our newer organization, which will have 11 states attached to it, I think that your experience would be hugely valuable for a lot of those other people to glean from picking your brain, whatever it would take.
Aristotle Wolfe: I know that [inaudible] took that role with many state agencies. And believe it or not, we went to Louisiana when Katrina hit, and we've been to Cleveland to help support during election years that were contentious. I mean, as far as expertise, if we have it, we share it. But we also glean from others. We're in programs like, a lot of our guys go to the FBI National Academy, and they learn about what other agencies do. I was lucky enough to be in a homeland security master's program that was with a bunch of other agencies that weren't just law enforcement, all levels of government. So we do try, but it can always be improved. And you talk about gaps. That's really how I see my entire role as a leader, especially a leader of leaders. These folks lead themselves. All I do is look for the gaps. And in the fire, if I have an opportunity to do it, I'll look for the gaps between the messaging from our shop to somebody else's or our shop to our people in the field.
But when you look at things like Oregon's right next to us, I just made a note because you mentioned it, and I know we've talked about snow. I'm going to ask those commanders, have you talked about fires? And then I'd have a better answer for you, but I'm going to do it because it makes sense like I don't want to assume anything. And it's also interesting because the state and federal, I've learned that appear to you a little bit, a little bit in Sonoma County and Marin County, but those federal lands are close to urban populations. Up here, they're generally not. And a lot of times, I don't want to speak for them, but there is a strategy in the fire service is to let fires burn. But as you know, the western towns are now buttoned up against these lands. So there's populations at risk, and that's a shift. I think the Fed's and State could even learn on the firefighting front. But then, what do we learn about how to manage that? How to get people out of these really rural areas if it's necessary. Is there a plan that's pretty challenging, but now you're intrigued me so I'm going to look into it.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: Just something about, well, highway 5 in Southern Oregon, and the two towns that were devastated, and Phoenix, and they actually sit in between highway 5 and highway 99. So they weren't even in the wowwee, like that's how rude this fire was. And it was an arsonist who said it in Ashland, and then took a little bit out of Ashland, and then just got mobile home parks in all the most vulnerable communities. And that wasn't a law enforcement issue whatsoever. It was like, once they closed one of the highways and everybody took the other highway, just that kind of stuff like that would have never been an issue before this type of fast moving fire. And so it's just something to, it's not a criticism. It's just like, somebody told me that, it just stuck in my brain so I brought it up now. So just be curious, especially because these fires, they don't really, we talk about the wildland urban interface and how people are uncertainly building into it increasingly, and that does increase our fire danger of losing people's lives and their homes and property. But these fires don't care much about your routine, like they're gonna move. Or they want to move, the winds gonna take them.
The Kincade fire was a really good example of how the winds kept shifting. So as you're watching the evacuation, everyone's like, okay, everybody from this evacuation zone. Go, and then the winds would shift. And it required a lot of civilians, not only a lot of people who were first responders to actually manage that, but also the people who were being evacuated. Like, okay, go this way. Okay, no, nevermind, the other way. And it sounds chaotic, actually sort of incredibly impressive. Something like 180,000 people were evacuated in a 24 hour period, and nobody lost their lives. And that's really what we're looking for. Is that sort of impressive, nimble, highly competent, competencies.
Aristotle Wolfe: Yeah. Again, I keep going back to Cal Fire, but I got to watch a lot of that. And knowing when to pull those, to have a trigger point, so to speak, that makes him do the next step because you know what the implications are down the road. And it's not perfect. I think these kinds of leaders and these kind of thinkers, and really, professionals, hard workers on these, whether it's a meteorologist or the fire sciences guy, or the GIS mappers, all these people that are involved in this stuff, it's more of an orchestra, like a football team. I don't know, I'm a terrible sports analogy guys, so that's probably not good.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: It's okay. I don't get them either.
"What you're trying to do is control chaos. You can never quite control it but you can meter it and you can help people navigate through it. and you can get better." -Aristotle Wolfe
Aristotle Wolfe: But there's a flow to it. And what you're trying to do is control chaos. And the two terms, don't go together. You never quite control it, but you can meter it, and you can help people navigate through it, and you can get better. So I think what you're describing, there's always room for improvement and learning. And there's always predictable things that are going to happen that you maybe couldn't get ahead of. But if the people live, that's the bottom line. And then secondary to that, we look at the environment, and then we look at property. So that's a victory. You take the victories and you build on those, but then you also have to have a realistic analysis of what could have been done better. And also, I think back to the stakeholders and back to our role, what do we need next time? Is it worth it? I hate to be cynical, but if you're not faced with fires all the time, getting people to do tabletops, getting people to dedicate spending is difficult. So those are always things that you hate for it to have to be a tragedy that spears that so, the sharing of information can sometimes spark it too. That happened in California, and our relative humidities are looking the same, it could happen here. I don't know, that's way outside of my lane speaking.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: You sit right in the middle of all of those lanes, you do. The thing is that you're a witness too inside of the room, and a lot of people who will listen to this podcast, they don't even really know the difference between what a CHP does. So for them is that kind of education and you are like a witness to it and a participant in it. I think it's very helpful for civilians. But it's also, my dream is that there'll be somebody in a state that we serve, like in Utah, and they are listening to this, they're interested in just this episode because it's law enforcement. They hear it and they're like, no, maybe I have an opportunity here to do this tabletop. Maybe even to contact you directly, or to whatever it is, and maybe we'll be a little more resilient than we are currently. And maybe we'll save a few more lives and a few of our homes, and we'll just be a little bit better. I always say, I'm in the business of mitigating pain.
Aristotle Wolfe: Well, that's the goal, and it is moving the needle forward. There's some things we can't control. And certainly, the weather and the fire situation, we can't control that. I can't speak to the preparation, but I can say, I mean, just based on my experience in my own community, knowing that people didn't know what to say, make mistakes, but knowing that people did their best, and knowing that people got out in a reasonable amount of time, and knowing that they got away with the things that really matter. Because something works that builds spirit, it builds incentives, it trains us to do to have similar actions. Maybe on other things that might be a little lofty, but it speaks to resilience. When somebody thinks they just got devastated out of nowhere, then where's the hope? If they feel like these actions were taken and they help, it just makes you feel better about the whole situation. And I think it helps people recover. I'm not a psychologist, but I've seen that even amongst our officers. When they know they were part of a good plan, or they were part of adapting a plan that didn't work and making it turn it into a victory, because that often is the case. I mean, plans or plans. What's that?
Jennifer Gray Thompson: That's what they say that [inaudible] makes God laugh, and I'm not religious.
"Knowing that they were part of something good helps them be resilient and want to do it again. It gives them meaning." -Aristotle Wolfe
Aristotle Wolfe: Mike Tyson, I think that everyone has a plan to punch him in the face. But knowing that they were part of something good helps them be resilient, helps them want to do it again. It gives them meaning, rather than just asking what happened. And wondering if anybody's thinking about it. I am a person who has experienced government inertia for their entire career. And it can be, the government moves slow for a reason, otherwise, we wouldn't have a solid infrastructure. You can't just make snap decisions. But I've seen people act within their policies. I've seen incremental improvement because of actions that worked well. And I really have been amazed, at least in Sonoma County, with the level of cooperation I've seen because I think it has improved. If anybody wants to take something away from anything, I have to say, I do believe that is working.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: Well, that's very good. We certainly see the results of that because we've had four mega fires in four years, two in one year, the Walbridge blast last year. We still lost several 100 homes, but we didn't lose several hundred lives, and we didn't lose several thousand homes. For the most part, it was good, it was a thing to watch. And I appreciate that a lot. I did want to actually, in a moment turn to the role of first responders in taking care of yourself. But first, I want to say, I had this weird experience during the glass fire, which is that I don't follow this particular person in any way, but people were sending me screenshots because they were very upset that she was crowdsourcing false press credentials, and mocking the Sheriff's Department and the CHP for how they didn't understand how important she was. Now, she may be a journalist by trade, but she is not by profession. She's not credentials anywhere. I was like, I don't know. This doesn't seem like a good idea. To me, this seems like, maybe we'll get you more Twitter followers, but it didn't seem very ethical or moral from my perspective. Can you talk about the role of making sure that you have authorized people. We do have amazing journalists who have actually special training in wildfire. I think about Kent Porter from the Press Democrat who's basically a walking [inaudible]. I mean, he has the trainee and he actually has the gear to make sure that he's keeping himself safe. He knows how to stay out of the way of the firefighters and law enforcement. Can you talk about the intrepid gorilla person who is not actually employed as a reporter, but thinks that it's okay for them to do such a thing?
Aristotle Wolfe: Yeah. My officers didn't have a lot of interaction. I know you're referring to. One of the things that I will say about it is anybody who doesn't have a role, and the press has a role so we have to let them in. We don't parse out credentials for the most part very tightly because there have been many court decisions that have decided that that is not appropriate. So it can be a problem even in crowd control situations because we have to also trust that this person that can't get it came in as a press is not there under false auspices, and now is causing havoc somewhere on intentionally.
"A [person] who isn't there to do their profession properly is just another person adding to the problem." -Aristotle Wolfe
But getting back to the very beginning of the podcast, we're talking about the differences and what people can do. And getting out right is one of the things we ask the public to do. We don't ask them to help, although there's some heroic things they do that they have to do in the moment to fill a gap that nobody else is filling. But getting out of our way, and when I say our way, it's mostly the firefighters. But also our folks are on every checkpoint, and they're trying to turn people around as fast as they can. They're trying to get them out of harm's way. And if it's an active situation, that's very frenetic. If it's an ongoing situation, fatigue just sets in. There are neighbors watching so we ask those neighbors, hey, I know your house is just right over there, but we have to set a line somewhere. So that's some of the stuff we message. A reporter who isn't there to really do their profession properly is just another person adding to the problem. And it's possibly a person that needs rescue, etc. I know Kent Porter very well. He has been in some hot zones, and he's got some amazing pictures. But he also has something that that person really doesn't, which are relationships. We trust Kent to do the right thing, we know he's capable, we know he's been to training, we know that he communicates. He also asked, is it safe? He doesn't just try to get it. All of those things are things that I would say, which should deter someone from, if their message to their followers, or their readers, or whatever is that I care about this situation. I feel like sending a different message.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: I'm not sure about it, but crowdsource falsified credentials because it also undermines the mission of the human beings in law enforcement, and the people who are credentialed and trained to be behind the lines. You don't want other people to do it. It's also encouraging other people to do it. I just wanted to address that. I'd like to turn now to, what do you do? Talk about, there's a human toll to being in public service.In a variety of ways. We had Pat Kerrigan a couple of weeks ago and she was very open with her struggles with alcoholism, especially after being on the air for 24 days and trying to take these into this information and turn it into something of public service. So doing public service and being a helper puts you in a very particular place where often helpers don't ask for help. They don't feel entitled to it, they want to do the best that they can and get out of the way of the people who do need more help. But what are your thoughts on that? How do you take care of the people that you lead? How do you take care of yourself mentally, emotionally and physically?
Aristotle Wolfe: It's a great question. And I think that's probably one of my most important roles. And when I say mine, it's really our sergeants, the folks that are on the line helping their people and they have their own issues to deal with. Over the years, I think law enforcement, specifically, I can speak to that, has gotten better on this issue. We have stressed the briefings over certain things. Not necessarily fires, but certain traumatic events that might happen to officers, dispatchers, and even the emergency personnel that aren't in our agency. But that might have been on scene for something like that. We have a whole office, Office of Employee safety and assistance that's dedicated to concentrating on these things. We have a wellness app that we put out to our folks. I don't know that every one of those things always helps, but it shows an institutional focus and intent to deal with this. And one of our strategic plan goals, we only have four.
One of them is to invest in our people, and it concentrates on employee wellness. We don't always get it right because it's a stressful job and everyone reacts differently. So in my own shop, when I was assigned in the Santa Rosa area, I wasn't there during the 2017 fires, but many of our employees, I think is including senior volunteers who aren't employees, but they're part of our family. I think about seven families, they're lost their home, hit real, and I know that was true of the sheriff's department, many of the fire services, etc. And that's tough. There were a lot of fundraisers, and a lot of this and that checking in and that's great. But also just getting back to this, including your folks.
I want to get back to the communication piece. Because sometimes, that's all I can do. Checking on them even though we're on mandatory 12 hour shifts with no days off for weeks at a time, making sure sergeant's are looking at individuals. And if there's an exception, we'll let them take the time to go see their family or affairs. We fill that gap somehow, we'll fill that hole with another employee somehow to make sure we're really plugging in. And also just given them, I find that giving them the why of what we do every day, and listening and celebrating their contribution. If we can do that vocally, or through a barbecue, or whatever. I mean, they seem like silly gestures. But sometimes, all it takes is just saying, hey, we care about you. We're not just sending you somewhere that we could just install a camera to watch, we're sending you somewhere that we need a human being that's dealing with people with real problems. Maybe someone from the press that isn't from the press, they're dealing with people that have an agricultural past, but it doesn't apply to them. And they're exceptions to everything, they've got to work through these things, they have to show compassion, they have to give that same why to those folks out there, and why they're doing things a certain way. And you wish every one of those wasn't a conversation and sometimes a venting of frustration on this officer or this person. Whoever it is that's on this line, but they're dealing with that. So the better I can give them information, the better I can show that we appreciate it. I find that speaks volumes. I had people volunteering to work even after it wasn't mandatory because they cared and they felt like they were part of something. I think that speaks for itself.
"We all took this job because we thought it was a meaningful job. And you have to constantly remind people that it is."-Aristotle Wolfe
The other thing is having been through all that, the folks in Sonoma County had that work at our patrol there, they had real ownership, this is their backyard, and they want to keep people safe there. And that sense of meaning is important. We all took this job because we thought it was a meaningful job. And you have to constantly give that feedback and remind people that it is because cynicism can set in, and then you couple it with your own personal tragedy or your own personal hardships, that's very real. Whether it's financial, or relational, or whatever it is, it's real. And we can only do so much. But I really find that just checking in and making sure you're having those talks, and going out. When I was a commander, I knew everything was safe and secure, and all the gaps were at least temporarily filled. And I'd been to the EEOC and all the other places I needed to be, I went out in the field with water, they didn't need more water. But they have plenty of water, they know what to do. But I brought him water, brought him ice cream, we made sure we got him fed every day even though we didn't necessarily have systems for that, because they're online and they can't be packed at home. And some of them were going through PSPS and had no power and all of that. I don't know, it's just being a human being I think.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: I talk to a lot of helpers,and it's good to remind them that it's okay to be human, it's fine. In fact, you would like the fact that they're human. I'm hearing so much of that from what you're saying, but they need to refill their own tank to like, that it can be traumatic. There are things that they can do in order to sort of bitter acute things like, you will now go into therapy for three years to deal with this. Couldn't be appropriate, sometimes, most of the time not really necessary. Most of the time, like you just need to offload it. It could be through making sure that you meditate, exercise, eating correctly. You find yourself sort of disengaged from your home life that, think about, is it because I just don't have anything more to give, which I think happens a lot in helpers situations. I know I go home some days and I don't even have a dangerous job. I don't have any more. My husband has learned his way through that. When I can give something, and when I actually just need to power all the way down, get into my yoga trapeze, hang upside down, listen to the Dixie Chicks. That's sort of like one of the things I don't strategies, I am more than you wanted to know.
Aristotle Wolfe: No, that's great. You froze for a minute there, but I heard the Dixie Chicks.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: You have strategies that work for you, and a lot of permission to say, it's good if you are a helper to have strategies. Some of them, like meditation, I found very helpful. I just want to shout out to Susan Farren of First Responders Resiliency who created a PTSD peer to peer program. Because with first responders, you can be much easier to actually use science. I like to say, I know exactly what it was to be in that situation, and I've never been a firefighter, I've never been in law enforcement. I would not be in that peer to peer because I wouldn't know the nuances of it, and the challenges of it, and the sisterhood brotherhood aspect of it. I just wanted to say that I think it reminds all the people on the frontlines that we want you to take good care of yourselves too because you take good care of us.
Aristotle Wolfe: That's a very good point, and we really do. I think that there's barriers in place. A lot of people think, well, cops can't open up, etc. Well, again, they're humans. They can open up, but you've got to invite them and let them know it's okay. And even then, you have to pry a little bit, you have to not just ask, how you do and wait for a fine. You have to get a description in there, ask a little more, ask a few more questions. Again, never perfect at it. I'm really proud of our leaders in our different commands that it is part of their toolbox that they know it needs to be. And mindfulness training is actually something that you're seeing in law enforcement these days. Just like everyone else that wants to be mindful, it's not always easy, but it is a skill. Just like working out, you make time for it, you do it with some intentionality. I'm not great at it myself, but I do other things. You have a yoga trapeze, and I used to have a racquetball court which has been closed for quite some time.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: That's adorable.
Aristotle Wolfe: Yeah, I'm an old person. I'm the youngest player, but yeah.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: Same age, actually. I think I might be like a year older than you. And yeah, you need to find a baby boomer to get after that racquetball with you.
Aristotle Wolfe: Well, then I'm only 32. Anyway, yeah. So that's really important.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: So as we close this episode, I just want to say that from a personal perspective, I appreciate you, and always your perspective, and that you always pick up the phone if I have a question about how something works, or law enforcement, or just trying from a learning because I appreciate the work that you do. I like knowing that you're out there, and also like the person that you remain because it can be difficult in service, especially law enforcement to hold full humanity, always the central core of what you do. It's a difficult position. But I was wondering if you could close this out with any advice for say, a law enforcement officer of any kind who's listening throughout the American West or anywhere about what are your core tools, how to address he fear of disaster and how to be as great of a highest level of service as possible in a realistic way. Any advice?
"Be curious about what your role could be, what successful people in that role have done, and learn a little bit more than just your contribution." -Aristotle Wolfe
Aristotle Wolfe: Well, Jen, what an easy question to end the interview with. I don't presume to tell other cops how to do things, per se. But I would say this, be curious. Just be curious about what your role could be, what successful people in that role have done. Learn a little bit more than just your contribution, but learn a little bit more about fire, or learn about the citizens that are up to some amazing work. Bring the topic up in your public outreach forums, whether it's the municipal advisory council, or a town hall, or whatever you're involved in. Talk about it, ask about it. Just look at how to maximize your role because your role is important. But if you feel like this is my job and this is all I need to do, you are not really in the whole game, you're just running out. Part of it is a play, and it's not as much of a contribution as you're capable of. If you were selected for this job, it's a difficult job, it requires a certain amount of intellect, it requires a certain amount of creativity, it requires a lot of fortitude. And if you're just doing a very limited role and not maximizing your contribution, you're selling yourself short. And it's probably not why you were selected. But as far as specific things, I don't know because there's some people that do way more amazing stuff than I've done in fires. And I'd want advice from them.
"If you're just doing a very limited role and not maximizing your contribution, you're selling yourself short. And it's probably not why you were selected." -Aristotle Wolfe
Jennifer Gray Thompson: Yeah, but you still get up in the morning and do stuff. You're the CHP in front of me, so you're the one. But I chose, quite frankly because I do have so much respect for you. So I just want to thank you again, this has been Aristotle Wolfe, and he is the Assistant Chief in Northern division California Highway Patrol. And thank you for spending this time with us on How To Disaster.
Aristotle Wolfe: Thank you Jen. I love the work you're doing. Keep it up.