Articles

California Wildfires Spur Emergency Messaging Signups

San Francisco-based Nixle saw as many as 15,000 new registrants per hour as wildfires burned in the Napa region.

by Benny Evangelista, San Francisco Chronicle / October 11, 2017
A KTLA cameraman gets his shot while a wall of flames jumps Highway 173 and erupts in a previously unburnt area near Silverwood Lake in San Bernardino County, Calif., on Monday, Aug. 8, 2016. With only 5 percent containment, the Pilot fire started Sunday afternoon and has quickly spread into the hills and mountains, consuming trees and brush in its path. (Mark Boster/Los Angeles Times/TNS) TNS

(TNS) — Nixle, an emergency messaging service that started in San Francisco in 2007, has become a vital link for official information in the Wine Country fires.

Nearly a half-million people have signed up for alerts from more than two dozen city, county and other emergency services agencies in Napa, Sonoma, Mendocino and Lake counties, Joel Rosen, chief marketing officer of Nixle’s parent, software company Everbridge, said Tuesday.

Since the fires started, and the first Nixle notification was transmitted at 10:51 p.m. on Sunday, Nixle has counted about 15,000 new registrations per hour, a total of about 150,000 more users, Rosen said.

Nixle, whose offices are in the South of Market area, allows police, fire, medical services, city government and other public service agencies to send public alerts that are accessible in various ways: mobile phone texts, phone calls, recorded messages and website posts, which can be shared on social media. Users can choose one or more forms.

Most of the time, text messages can alert residents to problems such as an accident that closed a road or a missing person. Under more dire circumstances, the multiple formats increase the chances one or more messages will find a way to get through even with cellular system outages, Rosen said.

Residents can sign up for the service by sending a text with their ZIP code to 888-777.

The Sonoma County Sheriff’s office used Nixle to first alert residents about the multiple fires, followed by the first evacuation alert 12 minutes later. The service also gained popularity recently during hurricanes Harvey and Irma.

Nixle doesn’t require users to pay or download a separate app, although there is an app available. Everbridge licenses use of the system to public agencies that send the messages.

Sonoma County also has its own system called SoCoAlert. And local agencies can use the Wireless Emergency Alerts system, while the American Red Cross and the Federal Emergency Management Agency also have apps to distribute information such as shelters opening.

Before a disaster strikes, people should research how their local government agencies transmit alerts, said Jeannette Sutton, an assistant professor at the University of Kentucky’s communications department and a specialist in disaster alerts.

Public agencies “will use different alerting tools,” she said in an email. “One could literally have 100 apps on their phone and try to tune into all of them. The confusion that comes from looking for the most up-to-date information with conflicting information is enough to make anyone crazy.”

San Francisco’s Department of Emergency Management recommends staying connected through various channels, including:

  • Facebook: Creating a Facebook group can connect someone to their “inner circle so you can easily send messages, share supplies and make a plan together,” and in an emergency, you can post whether you are safe.
  • Twitter: Follow feeds from the city’s emergency services department, SF72org, 511.org and SF311.org.
  • Nextdoor: This app and Web service allows residents in a neighborhood to share information.

Sutton noted that Twitter and Nextdoor will “include a lot of public chatter, some accurate, some not,” so knowing in advance who has “the most relevant and breaking news and will keep them updated” is vital.

©2017 the San Francisco Chronicle Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.