In the early hours of Oct. 9, as massive wildfires licked across the North Bay and other nearby counties, Sonoma County officials decided against sending a mass text alert to residents’ cellphones.
That decision may have proved fatal to some victims caught in the firestorm’s path without time to evacuate. But how the county — and the state — could have better alerted people to the impending danger remains in question. At a legislative hearing in Sacramento Monday, officials agreed that resiliency and redundancy were lacking in local emergency communication systems across the state.
What they couldn’t decide during the three-hour session, a joint hearing of the Committee of Emergency Management and the Committee on Communications and Conveyance, was how to improve them.
California emergency managers use a patchwork of warning systems, and some do not even have a way to send text alerts during a disaster. There is little oversight by the state. The decision of whether, and when, to send an emergency message is made by local officials. Creating a cohesive statewide set of criteria for emergency warnings is one option, but geography and population differences create hurdles.
“We don’t have a statewide standard for this like we do for 911 or for Amber Alerts,” said state Sen. Mark McGuire, D-Healdsburg, who represents many of the areas hit by October’s fires. “Maybe we should.”
Officials from Yuba, Mendocino, Napa and Lake counties presented information Monday on how their residents were notified of the fast-moving disaster that left 44 dead and destroyed nearly 9,000 homes and commercial buildings. No one from Sonoma County, where the emergency alert system’s shortcomings first drew attention to the issue, attended the hearing. A second session is planned for Dec. 14.
“We aren’t going to reach 100 percent of the people 100 percent of the time,” said James Gabbert, chair of the State Emergency Communications Committee. “The problem is there hasn’t been much discussion on it at all. That’s a very significant problem.”
Legislators are hoping to determine what changes are needed and how much those would cost, particularly given that the state’s annual fire season is growing longer and more destructive.
A federally administered warning system called the Wireless Emergency Alert is used in roughly one-third of counties in the United States. It can send a mass Amber Alert-type text message and warning signal to large numbers of cell phones during an emergency.
Local officials say they try to be cautious with the system, though, because it can cover too wide an area. Hitting every available cell phone in a county — rather than just those in a targeted evacuation zone — could cause unnecessary panic, a reason Sonoma County officials cited for not using it in October.
Maribel Marin, president of 211 California, an emergency response association, said the system can also snarl efforts to reach residents because emergencies do not always follow county lines. She said more state efforts to create an overarching communication system could be helpful.
“You can’t have communication lines that only serve the county because disasters don’t stay within those boundaries, and people are evacuating in all directions,” Marin said. “If they left Butte and now are in Yuba or Sutter counties, they are not able to get the information they need. Infrastructure is going to allow responders to make sure the public gets the information they need.”
Citywide alert systems, like AlertSF, which pings San Franciscans’ phones with warnings for things like tsunamis and flooding, wouldn’t work in rural areas lacking the necessary infrastructure. More antiquated communication methods — including broadcasts to battery-powered radios — are more reliable, but fewer people own the technology. Insulating cell towers to keep them operational in the case of fire and flood is unlikely to happen because of the cost to the private sector.
Creating statewide guidelines for handling emergency situations could be a starting point, said Mark Ghilarducci, director of the Governor’s Office of Emergency Services.
“All disasters are local,” Ghilarducci said. “This is where people are being impacted. Local government should be the place to issue alerts and warnings. ... But we are at a point, from my view, that we need to implement standardized processes that really guide all of the users into a standardized practice with specific standards that they need to meet. That can be done administratively or legislatively.”
He added, “The challenge with that is, while there is a broad set of ways to push information out to the public, there is no one way with best standards.”
At the end of the day, said Assemblyman Devon Mathis, R-Visalia (Tulare County), people need to be able to put their head down on their pillow at night and know that “if something is to happen, there is something to alert them.”
“What is the best way to communicate that original emergency?” he said. “The real question is, when the fire burns or the flood wipes out cell towers, if the lines go down, how do you notify people when every second counts? What does that look like? That’s something bigger we have to develop over the year.”