Communication Failures in Disaster: A Case Study in Malibu, California with Reva Feldman

"There's no one perfect solution to any of this. It's a collection of a lot of different tools that can help make us safer, more resilient, and hopefully avoid any catastrophes and loss of life." -Reva Feldman


Modernization made communication easier and faster, at least when there is a supply of power. But what if you're community faces a train of disaster and a major power outage? Join our guest host, Scott Adams, as he interviews Reva Feldman, the City Manager of Malibu. Reva relates how the Woolsey fire greatly challenged their preparedness as a community and what lessons came as a result. Reva provides tips on how leaders can continue to provide the urgently needed information and where citizens can get the latest news even in these situations. She also talks about the importance of having a redundant system and organized evacuation plans. We are facing the threat of bigger and longer disasters. Tune in and learn how to think big and be prepared! 


  • 02:28: A Train of Disasters
  • 10:19: Communication Challenges
  • 14:51: How to Prepare
  • 18:22: No Power? No Problem!
  • 22:20: Organized  Evacuation 
  • 26:41: Think Big!



12:53: "If you have a power outage and you're worried, get in your car because that will tell you what's going on. A very good tip is AM radio." -Reva Feldman

14:55: "You can't have enough redundant systems." -Reva Feldman

18:07: "It doesn't have to be someone who can sign-up for information through your municipality. The ability to alert them makes a huge difference." -Scott Adams 

21:35: "Even a small amount of training can be a huge resource to connect with people." -Reva Feldman

26:23: "People should be thinking about public safety and emergency response right now. We need to think big." -Reva Feldman

27:29: "Making sure that you've cross-trained people that have different ways of thinking things through is really important because these fires aren't going away, and they're going to get worse." -Scott W. Adams

28:12: "There's no one perfect solution to any of this. It's a collection of a lot of different tools that can help make us safer, more resilient, and hopefully avoid any catastrophes and loss of life." -Reva Feldman

Guest Host: Scott Adams

professional photo of man with blue suit jacket, dark blonde hair and a short beard

Scott Adams is a 2020 Masters of Public Affairs graduate from UC Berkeley's Goldman School of Public Policy. With over two decades of experience in California public policy, politics, and business; he has worked in the public and private sectors on issues including technology, telecommunications, clean energy, housing, infrastructure, and water.






Meet Reva: 

portrait of Reva Feldman

Reva Feldman has more than twenty years of experience in public service. She has been with the City since 2005, serving as the Assistant City Manager and Administrative Services Director before her appointment as City Manager in May 2016. Reva brings with her strong leadership skills, knowledge, experience, and a deep dedication to the community.



Scott Adams: Hello everyone. This is Scott Adams. Welcome to this interview as a follow up to our recent research paper Disconnected: Understanding Communication System Failures During Disaster. The project was funded by ReBuild NorthBay Foundation and United Way of the Wine Country. It's really intended to help bring understanding to this critical issue to foster a dialogue and to help identify solutions moving forward for individuals, municipalities and residents here in California. Today, we're honored to be speaking with Reva Feldman, the City Manager for the city of Malibu. She has been through a number of disasters herself, and was really helpful in our research on this paper. Reva is going to be talking to us about how municipalities can go about planning, preparing for disasters, the need to think big for inevitable future disasters. So Reva, welcome, we're so glad to have you with us.

Reva Feldman: Thank you so much. It's great to be here.

Scott Adams: Great. So in 2018, the Woolsey Fire occurred in Malibu, and just really significant as it's indicative of these large scale disasters that California has faced over the last several decades. Just for the people who are looking at this video, wanting to have you, just give a brief description of the setup, what happened and what you found yourself in 2018 during the fires?

Reva Feldman: Great, thank you so much. I'm really honored to be able to share some of the experiences that I went through in the city of Malibu, and my hope is always that someone will take something away in case they ever are in the same situation, and they can learn from it and be better prepared. So the city of Malibu, we call it kind of Disaster Central. We are known to have wildfires, frequent wildfires, mudslides, storms and high rain, big rain events. So we prepare for emergencies all the time. We unlike a lot of small cities, practice our EFC very regularly. My staff is very well versed on that. And we have a lot of robust and redundant communication tools that we use for our community. We send out regular traffic advisories through a variety of programs, which is something unusual for a small city. So my staff is very fluent in doing that, and communicating with the city. Prior to the Woolsey fire, I had the opportunity to serve in the EFC in Santa Rosa during the Tubbs fire. So I was able to get a lot of good experience that I brought back to my city. So we did things in the year before the Woolsey Fire, like doing a test of our reverse 911 system which we run through every bridge. Some people said: "What was the failure? You didn't reach people?" And we said: "Well, actually, that's a success. Because now we know who we can reach and who we can't reach." So we felt very prepared. 

We had talked to our partner agencies, again, my staff, I had thought through things and we have systems in place as much as we actually have a server system that duplicates all of our city servers in Arizona in the event that things go down, there's an interruption to the cloud, so we've really taken disaster preparedness pretty far along. And then the Woolsey Fire hit and everything went wrong all at once. It was like a bad tabletop exercise coming to life. So if you bear with me for a minute while I kind of tee up the week that we were having, we were under a PSPS watch from Southern California Edison, so we were on very high alert. On Monday of that week, my Sheriff Captain had a stroke, and we're a contract city with Los Angeles County so Sheriff and fire are provided through LA County. I met his number two for the first time on Monday via phone call because she was new to the station that he had been taken to the hospital on Tuesday. We have not only a statewide election but a local election where I had two council members who had been termed out, and I have two new council members elected, but not yet sworn in. We had a new sheriff in LA County who was under race that hadn't been called. So it was a little bit of, we didn't know who was going to be the Sheriff and we had a new governor with Gavin Newsom who had been elected but not yet sworn. 

And then on Wednesday evening, our community went through the borderline grill shooting, though it was in Thousand Oaks, for those people who are familiar with Southern California, that's just a hop and a skip from Malibu. And we had a lot of Pepperdine students, Pepperdine University is located adjacent to the city. It's actually in the county, but we consider it part of our city family. And there were 16 students who were at the grill during the shooting and one young woman who lost her life. And a city staff members who had family and friends who were there. I had staff members who had been at the Las Vegas shooting. So this was very traumatic for them. I started my day early Thursday morning consoling my staff. I was at Pepperdine University at a prayer service for the young woman who lost her life. And then later that afternoon, the Woolsey Fire broke out, and we were the third fire in California that day behind the campfire and the hill fire which was also nearby. Malibu was in the Thousand Oaks Camarillo area. And at first, we were much more concerned about the threat of that fire because it was burning in an area that had previously burned over the hills into Malibu in years past. So we were watching the hill fire. the Woolsey Fire, for those again familiar with Malibu was a north east of Malibu about 25 miles As the Crow Flies. 

Personally, I was worried because my house is between where the Woolsey fire started, and Malibu. So my first concern was actually for my house. We got orders to evacuate that evening, this is now Thursday evening at about midnight, and ultimately 250,000 people were evacuated during the Woolsey fire in less than 24 hours. It was a tremendous evacuation effort by Los Angeles County. They were hearing what was going on with the campfire, and they were very worried that lives would also be lost here. So their first concern was to protect life and then property. So at about midnight when I had got the evacuation order to evacuate my own home, our protocol in Malibu is if there's evacuation south of the 101, which was what was happening, then we will fully activate our EFC. So we started to evacuate, activate our EFC. And my staff came in and started doing messaging and stepping everything up. And about 7:00 AM on Friday morning, we got notice from the fire department that we needed to evacuate the entire city of Malibu. So what was happening was there was a wall of fire about 14 miles long headed toward the post, and we were dealing 70, 80 mile an hour winds. The fire front was actually, they were holding the front in certain areas. But with the wind, the embers were driving those embers about two miles ahead of the front. So that was where they really lost control. 

Unbeknownst to me at that time was that the LA County who was started to lead into account, it started in Ventura County moved to LA County was begging for resources. They kept putting in the mutual aid resource requests and not getting them. So they would be asking for 500 engines and getting 50. So it was a terrible, just convergence of everything happening at once where resources were already being sent to the campfire to the hill fire. And then we just weren't getting resources, which unfortunately ended up in the fact that we'd lost about 1,600 homes in the Woolsey fire burn area, about 500 of those in Malibu.

Scott Adams: That's just devastating, I'm sorry, I didn't mean to interrupt you. But I think one thing I wanted to ask you about that is in this particular situation. You went into such great detail about how prepared you were, and then also all these other non related issues that we take up the time and attention of public servants and city and county officials. And then you have this huge fire, evacuating 250,000 people in an area, the entire city of Malibu. I think just taking those steps shows the scale and scope of the disaster you were dealing with. What I'd love for you to touch on is, given that our report was based on the communication system failures and really the technical side, and talking about the nexus between the power grid and communication systems and networks, what challenges did you see? I think you shared with me there was just wide scale infrastructure to start.

Reva Feldman: I kind of teeing all this up, because you think, okay, well, you're in your EOC, you're getting the information, you're sending out the messages, they're evacuating people, things are working the way they're supposed to. And these horrible disasters, it's what we've trained for. It's what we're trying to prepare a community for what we didn't know was the wide scale power outages that were going on because of how fast the fire was moving. So Southern California Edison lost about 2,000 power poles in this area, so that took out power completely and also took out this cell communications. And so what we didn't know sitting in our EFC was that we were sending out messages via the internet, via cell phones, calling people's homes, most people have phones through Wifi or through the internet, and people weren't getting the messages. So that was the first problem that we learned about afterwards that people just didn't necessarily get that evacuation notice in a timely manner. And then the other problem we had is in Malibu we're 20 miles long. And our main road is Pacific Coast Highway, which is owned and operated by Caltrans, and there's multiple signals throughout that corridor. We were sending residents south east towards Santa Monica to evacuate to avoid the hill fire, which was earning on the other side of our community. And there were so many power outages that all the signals along the highway were out creating incredible traffic, just a complete gridlock. So what would normally take someone 20 or 30 minutes was taking 6 hours. So you've just had people queued up along the highway.


"If you have a power outage and you're worried, get in your car because that will tell you what's going on. A very good tip is AM radio." -Reva Feldman


Now, the good part of that is they were adjacent to the ocean. And so God forbid, if something terrible happened, they actually had a place where they could be a safe haven. But that's not what you want during an evacuation. And so we were calling and asking CHP and the sheriff, please, open up all lanes of the highway, get us traffic control. We were being told that was happening, but it wasn't because they didn't have the resources to get to us, again, because we were the third disaster going on that day. So it really taxed our law enforcement and our public safety to a place that we had never anticipated. So looking back on those things, what can you do differently? What plate things can you have in place? How to communicate differently? I always say, if you take nothing away, but this one thing is that you can always get in your car and listen to AM radio and find out what's going on. I always say that to residents. If you have a power outage and you're worried, it's smoky, it's windy, you don't know what you can't find it out, get in your car because that will tell you what's going on. So it's a very good tip is AM radio. And we have since provided many of our residents with hand crank AM radios, but we've come up with additional systems to communicate with our community during the fire. So we're in the process of doing a project that would install a warning, a siren warning system sort of like normal air raid systems.

Scott Adams: Like the pole mounted ones.

Reva Feldman: Pole mounted in neighborhood's old fashion analog. So we're in the process of that going through the design and planning of that.

Scott Adams: Can I just interject here real quick, because I really think this way that you were reading my mind on what the next question was going to be is that the focus of our paper was that we live in this technology dependent society. So everything that we expect is going to be received through our phones or through the internet. But our study found, and it's helping to really illuminate for folks and your experience in Malibu speaks to this is that there's such a nexus between the power, not just the power grid in the communications grid because they share a lot of the same poles and fiber backhaul, etc. But the need for redundant communications. And in a lot of ways, it's these back to the future solutions that can be really the most effective, and a situation where everything is knocked down. Like in your case where you guys had to move your EMC, your emergency operation center to Santa Monica. I'm sorry, I just wanted to interject to bring some context. But as you continue to talk about, because I think that both on the community side and the residents side, what we're hoping to do is provide information to folks on how to prepare given that some of these long term infrastructure solutions are going to take time and cost a lot of money.


"You can't have enough redundant systems." -Reva Feldman


Reva Feldman: Absolutely. I think that's a really very good point that you can't have enough redundant systems. I think that's what we really learned. So you have your reverse 911. What we did also immediately after the Woolsey fire is that we purchase the data for cell phone information for reverse 911. Most of the times when a municipality has that system, you just automatically get home phone numbers. And obviously today, many people don't have a home phone number. So right away, we were able to purchase cell phone data, and we really encourage our residents to sign up and give us additional cell phone contact information. You have both the husband, the wife and the kids if they have phone numbers. We really increase the numbers of numbers that we have in that. We actually enrolled in this immediately, before the Woolsey fire, we hadn't gotten trained to do it yet. But we also have our own ability to send out a WEAs alert, which is a Wireless Emergency Alert System. Because people know that for the amber alerts that we get on our phone. The reason that's important for us is that we have a huge visitor population. We see about 15 million people coming into our community where we only have 13,000 residents so we want to make sure that we have a way of communicating with visitors, as well as our residents. We used it once since COVID broke out to communicate with people. And what that does is it just reaches another way of reaching people, particularly if they're not enrolled in communications from the city.


"It doesn't have to be someone who can sign-up for information through your municipality. The ability to alert them makes a huge difference." -Scott Adams


Scott Adams: I asked you a question or wanted to underscore a point for folks, so hopefully by now, most cities, counties and other potential alerting authorities are aware of wireless emergency alerts that go through cell phones, and that's part of the iPod, the federal government's integrated public alert and warning system. And that also is, you raise a really good point about some of the areas in California that are most threatened by disasters. You have the local government and private sector programs, which are opt-in where the individuals, the residents, or the citizens opt into that when you use through iPods, the alerting authority of the government agency that needs to opt in to use the system. But in doing so, you have this more robust geo fencing capability so that it doesn't have to be someone who can sign up for information through your municipality, you just have the ability to alert them. And that makes a huge difference. We've heard that from your peers, in Sonoma, and kind of Lake County and other places as well.

Reva Feldman: Right. And the counties typically are the ones who use that system. Again, that's reliant on a cell phone. So you, again, are reliant on power. So what we're trying to do is come up with multiple ways of communicating that are both reliant on power and are not reliant on power. Some of the other things that happened in our disaster post fire was that we had had quite a few residents who remained in the evacuation area. So they were there without power, without any way of hearing what was going on after the fire. And so we wanted to make sure that we had a system, we had residents, whether it was a fire where they remain to stay, or an earthquake where there was no power and people were all there of how are we going to give them up to date information. So we came up with a very simple solution where we actually print out material and put it on either a sandwich board or a poster board and put it around town based on kind of gathering areas, whether it might be a fire station, or a school, or a church, or a supermarket. And we actually use this, we've been using it during COVID where we're putting printed out updates every day on our supermarket windows where people can go, they don't have power, or maybe they're not internet savvy, and they can see what the city is doing and what the latest information is. And we actually have been using our cert volunteers to do that task. So that's another thing too is that people get tired, you only have so many staff, it doesn't matter how big a city you are, things happen and people aren't able to, so I really encourage people to take advantage of their community and their volunteer groups to help them with certain things. So that was a main solution that we came up with.

Scott Adams: And we can just say for some of the people who would be watching this service, the community emergency response teams.

Reva Feldman: Yes, thank you, sorry. Government speak is all acronyms. And I apologize, I sometimes forget,

Scott Adams: Oh, no, no. Obviously, after speaking to a number of stakeholders who have been through these disasters, like yourself, there's a common theme that's coming that it's like, you've got to prepare on the technical side, in diversifying build, redundant technological solutions. But the flip side is also in these black sky events when everything fails. You mentioned earlier the hand crank radios that can get radio signals through AM radio and the National Weather Association, and just the more analog like the printed material, the sandwich boards is crazy as that might seem this point in time where technology is so advanced and evolve, but that's what we've heard a number of people doing, and it's so important that you're stressing that.


"Even a small amount of training can be a huge resource to connect with people." -Reva Feldman


Reva Feldman: Absolutely. And you want to make sure to, and it's something we did after the Woolsey fire really increased the number of people in our cert team, that community emergency response team because those people know their neighbors, and they know their neighborhoods. Even with a small amount of training can be a huge resource to connect with people. We unfortunately suffered flood after fire immediately post Woolsey and went through another round of about four evacuation series of evacuations. And so we used our cert members to go door to door to make sure that their neighborhood and their neighbors knew that there's a large rain event coming, be prepared, keep your phone charged, be ready to go. Ready, set, go. And they were wonderful because they know the people. So you're going to open the door to your neighbor where you may not to a stranger from the city coming by. I wanted to also share the other thing that we have implemented, and it sounds very simple. It actually is that we were really worried that we would hit, get put in the exact same situation where we didn't have resources. We always assumed evacuations. If power went out, we would use Sheriff deputies to drive through our neighborhoods to evacuate people. And because of the number of people being evacuated at the same time, there just wasn't the ability to get that many law enforcement officers in the neighborhoods at the same time and so the city purchased about 50 bolt horns. And we made magnets for all of our city cars that say, disaster response. And we've trained and we've done drills of this where I put two city staff people in a car using a bullhorn, they have a siren and a microphone, and they drive through the neighborhoods and saying, time to evacuate. And it actually works pretty well. So we did it so we could see. And so it's just one more tool that we have, I hope I never have to do that. But you know? If we get put in a situation where we don't have enough resources to do evacuations, my staff can actually step up and do it.

Scott Adams: And I think that that's, thank you so much for sharing those because those are, again, when you look at the need for redundant communications and not just analog, it's like how do you leverage your existing infrastructure as a city or a county in deploying public safety vehicles, getting the bull horns. Even sending just slightly different audio or visual signals, like with your magnets are ways that you can alert your citizens that there's something different, that you've got to pay attention and look for further information.

Reva Feldman: And that's a low cost thing that you can do. Obviously, the siren warning system is a very expensive and long term solution. But we wanted to make sure that we had tools right now today that if we needed them, last week, I actually had for small fires breakout so we're not out of the clear ever here. There's just a lot of things that you can think about and do to make things safer. The other thing I wanted to touch on that you mentioned briefly was we had to evacuate our EOC because our City Hall was in the path of the fire. I never thought I would need to use the lessons learned there so quickly here in the pandemic. But we were able to run our EOC completely remotely, which we were really in good shape when this pandemic hit because my staff was already doing that in a year ago. And so they were able quickly to transition to that. I know most small cities now are working remotely, but it's just another thing which is, how do you work if what you thought was going to be the place? You were all going to be in this room together, and this is how it's gonna work. Now, how do you work and do it quickly? You have to turn on a dime. It's not like the fire is going to pause while you try to figure this out, or the earthquake. So it's just another important thing for people to keep in mind that you might not be physically where you thought you were going to be running things while there's a disaster going on.


"People should be thinking about public safety and emergency response right now. We need to think big." -Reva Feldman


Scott Adams: And I think that's so important. One of the things that I'd like to kind of pivot as we come a little bit to the end of our interview is that what our paper founder who's making the case is that California is facing this new normal, where there's this series of factors that are contributing just to the inevitability. Not only are we going to have more disasters, but they're going to be bigger and extend for longer periods of time. They may include power shut off, they can compromise communications networks. And now with this pandemic, when you and I first spoke, that was a couple months ago, and it seemed like the coronavirus pandemic, there was an end in sight to that. But now that we're not, we're looking at the potential of concurrent disasters one on top of the other. So I wanted to have you close with us is that you were really specific and clear about how people should be thinking about problems, and public safety, and emergency response right now. I think you said that we need to think big. Can you kind of share with us your thoughts on that and give a parting shout outs or shout out to your fellow municipalities.


"Making sure that you've cross-trained people that have different ways of thinking things through is really important because these fires aren't going away, and they're going to get worse." -Scott W. Adams


Reva Feldman: Sure. I think that this pandemic has been a big learning lesson for a lot of us of how can government work differently, I think we've all done an amazing job of showing that we can all telecommute and do the things we need to do for the most part remotely, and to continue to think of what that would look like in an earthquake or in bad fire. I think it's also been a big learning lesson for us of the need to have redundancy within your own staff. And that there may not be help at the end of a phone line where in the past, if it's fire just hitting me, I can call Northern California and ask for help from other cities or go through the mutual aid system. And in a major disaster, or in a major pandemic, like we're in now, we're all kind of on our own. So making sure that you've crossed trained people that you have different ways of thinking things through is really important. And I did want to just touch on one other item, which I didn't say, because this is certainly about fire and wildfire preparing for that. The importance of making sure that your community knows about home hardening and providing tools to harden your home in your neighborhood , make sure you have a fire safe home. Because as you said, these fires aren't going away, and they're going to get worse. And so we have a lot of tools and a lot of resources on our website. I encourage people to look at that to adopt a landscape ordinance to help residents. That's just another component of it. And there's not one perfect solution to any of this, but it's a collection of a lot of different tools that can help make us safer, make us more resilient and hopefully avoid any catastrophes and loss of life.


"There's no one perfect solution to any of this. It's a collection of a lot of different tools that can help make us safer, more resilient, and hopefully avoid any catastrophes and loss of life." -Reva Feldman


Scott Adams: Well, thank you so much for that. We have just been speaking to Reva Feldman, City Manager of Malibu. I think that the work that you're doing there to keep your residents safe is both important for your residents. But your willingness to share your wisdom, the game through experience with others is critically important. And we just want to thank you for your time.

Reva Feldman: Thank you so much for including me, and I wish you all the best.

Scott Adams: Thank you.