Preparedness & Recovery

Sonoma County Did Not Consider Using Mass Cellphone Alerts to Warn of Fires, Top Emergency Official Says

The county’s five staff members trained to send a forced message to cellphones didn’t even discuss whether to use the Wireless Emergency Alert system to warn people in the fires’ path.

by Julie Johnson, The Press Democrat, Santa Rosa, Calif. / November 19, 2017
A helicopter flies through the smokey sky to drop a load of water on a wildfire Thursday, Oct. 12, 2017, in Sonoma, Calif. AP/Rich Pedroncelli

(TNS) - Long before Oct. 8, when more than a dozen wildfires erupted across Sonoma County, including a deadly blaze that would grow into California’s most destructive inferno, county emergency officials knew they had a tool that could force targeted warning messages onto the cellphones of people in harm’s way.

They did not, however, consider using that tool in the disaster, a new disclosure made last week by the county’s top emergency services executive.

Last year, when the county first evaluated the government notification system, used to broadcast Amber Alert messages and other emergency notices, Christopher Helgren, the county’s emergency services manager, decided it had little use during local disasters. He said he wasn’t confident in the system’s ability to send geographically targeted messages to an area smaller than the whole county.

So when the fires broke out last month within hours across Sonoma County, from Geyserville to Lakeville, the county’s five staff members trained to send a forced message to cellphones didn’t even discuss whether to use the Wireless Emergency Alert system to warn people in the fires’ path, Helgren said in a phone interview Thursday.

Instead, they and other emergency personnel sent dozens of messages through opt-in cellphone and landline programs that reached a much smaller fraction of people in the county.

“It was determined in the case of the Emergency Alert System (for TV and radio) and Wireless Emergency Alert (for cellphones) that they are tools to be used for a wide-alerting application for a disaster where you want to reach large areas of people, such as a tornado and a hurricane,” Helgren said. “It was determined there was little specific application for those alerts in our county.”

His explanation marked the first detailed public comments by a county emergency services executive since the first week of the fires about the county’s controversial decision not use the Amber Alert-style warnings to notify people about the wind-driven firestorm that night. The fires would burn 142 square miles of Sonoma County, kill 23 people here and destroy more than 5,100 homes.

Helgren said the strategy was to send targeted messages, via the opt-in programs run through Nixle and SoCo Alerts, to smaller groups of residents in immediate danger. A wider broadcast to all cellphones, he said, ran the risk of prompting people not under threat of fire to evacuate and clog the roads for emergency responders and those in danger.

But officials with the Federal Emergency Management Administration, California Office of Emergency Services and the software company that created the system capable of sending Wireless Emergency Alerts said the main cellphone companies have been able to send geographically targeted government alerts since 2013.

That was done in Lake County last month when fire threatened homes in Clearlake and Clearlake Oaks. Lake County sheriff’s officials sent multiple warnings about the blaze — which eventually burned about 2,207 acres and destroyed nearly 140 homes — with Wireless Emergency Alert messages that night, the first at 2:15 a.m. Oct. 9 and pushed to about 840 cellphones, sheriff’s officials said.

Helgren said Sonoma County uses the same software as Lake County, and the difference is primarily county policy.

“We recognize WEA alerts can be targeted, but not to the level of specificity to be effective,” Helgren said. “The cellular company controls the geographic distribution and the information is proprietary by cellphone provider so we can’t know where these alerts would have gone.”

Helgren, who spoke over the phone alongside Deputy County Administrator Rebecca Wachsberg, said he believed the county used the best digital tools available. He shared no reflection on what could have been done differently.

“If there had been a better way to notify those in danger and prevent loss of life, we would have used it,” Helgren said. “We recognize people in our community are grieving, and we’re truly sorry.”

Sonoma County officials did issue evacuation notifications throughout the night — initially with firefighters and deputies on the ground banging on doors, blaring sirens, urging people to evacuate over the loudspeakers in the rural communities along Petrified Forest Road, where the Tubbs fire made its first advance from Calistoga toward Santa Rosa.

But a vocal group of residents have said they received no official warning even hours into the firefight. Many said they received only phone calls from friends and family urging them to flee.

Gary Kozel, who evacuated his Kenwood home after a neighbor pounded on his door, said the county’s warning methods were inadequate, and had they been better prepared they may have prevented deaths. Kozel said he received no calls to his landline or cellphone and he’d never heard of Nixle or SoCo Alerts.

“Lives were lost here and something needs to be done to address this, and soon,” Kozel said.

One month after the fires started, Sonoma County Board of Supervisors Chairwoman Shirlee Zane asked County Administrator Sheryl Bratton to have an independent consultant audit the county’s emergency notification system and how public alerts were used.

Supervisor James Gore said he too wants an independent audit to evaluate the county’s emergency response and preparedness. However, he said some questions about whether the county fully understands and employed all the warning tools available should be answered as soon as possible. Floods, landslides and other potential hazards exacerbated by the burned landscape could impact a wide swath of the county as winter weather arrives, he said.

“If we have another disaster here in the next week, are we prepared to use all the tools available? That’s what we all should know,” Gore said.

Supervisor Susan Gorin, whose Oakmont home was destroyed by fire two days into the firefight, said she only became aware of the opt-in programs Nixle and SoCo Alerts — and the singular role they play for the county — after the fires. She was not home at the time and didn’t undergo the frightful evacuation experience of many of her constituents, she said.

“Everyone I meet, I ask them ‘Where did you live and what were the circumstances of the evacuations?’” Gorin said. “I’m in the listening and learning mode. I don’t have any strongly held opinions about the alert system, what functioned and what didn’t.”

The Press Democrat has requested information from Sonoma County, including the dates and times of automated warnings sent to residents, the locations of those warned, the contents of those messages, including outgoing calls, and data that would should how many of the calls or texts went through.

Representatives of the Sonoma County Counsel’s Office said Thursday they hope to provide the records by next month.

Wireless Emergency Alerts are government-issued push notifications to cellphones, announced with a distinct tone and a simple 90-character message. Alerts override silent settings and can be transmitted to phones within a designated geographic area, reaching even out-of-towners.

The system is run through the Federal Emergency Management Agency and regulated by the Federal Communications Commission because it requires the participation of private cellphone companies. The alert program was created in the aftermath of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, disasters that demonstrated the country had no public alert system designed to reach people on their cellphones.

Federal Communication Commissioners on Nov. 1 ordered long-awaited changes to the system, including measures to increase the length of messages from 90 characters to 360 and allow embedded links.

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai has said the next step for the regulatory body will be to develop more stringent requirements to enable greater geographic precision with messages.

Helgren said he and two full-time and two part-time county staff members have been trained to use the Wireless Emergency Alert system, which requires specific training and permission. They gained access to it last year when they purchased the CodeRED software they use to send SoCo Alerts.

The night of the fires, county and Santa Rosa city staff sent warnings and evacuation orders throughout the night using the Nixle software and the SoCo Alerts phone dialing program, which both allow precise geo-targeting because people sign up to receive messages and enter information like their address and ZIP code. The flip side is the programs rely on people signing up beforehand. The SoCo Alerts program also has the capacity to send messages to landline telephones.

At 10:51 p.m., the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office sent its first warning through Nixle, which was capable of reaching 21,284 cellphones and 16,330 emails of people who had signed up. Over the next seven hours, sheriff’s officials sent eight Nixle messages, each with increasing urgency — warning the public about fires advancing down Mark West Springs Road toward Santa Rosa, into Kenwood and Glen Ellen, and telling the public about evacuation centers. Santa Rosa police sent three messages through Nixle before 6 a.m., starting with a 1:41 a.m. mandatory evacuation notice for Skyfarm, Fountaingrove and Montecito Heights neighborhoods.

The first SoCo Alert message was ordered by Sheriff Rob Giordano and went out at 11:37 p.m. to warn people in an area from the Larkfield area to the Napa County border, making about 2,096 connections to phones and emails.

Starting with that message and through Oct. 14, Sonoma County staff sent 43 separate messages through the SoCo Alert system, making 46,000 connections via landline telephones, emails and text messages, Helgren said. More than half of those messages were sent in the first 24 hours.

“We did dozens of alerts during this period, and each of those alert groups were relatively small,” Helgren said.

He said the city of Santa Rosa sent a message to a widespread group of city residents before dawn on Oct. 9, however details about that message, including where it was sent and to how many residents, wasn’t immediately available.

“If you weren’t notified, you need to sign up. That’s the tool available to me, that’s the most effective tool. If you signed up you will get a notification,” said Neil Bregman, emergency preparedness coordinator with the city of Santa Rosa.

Only county staff have access to the Wireless Emergency Alert system, he said.

The night of Oct. 8, Helgren and Zachary Hamill, the county’s emergency services coordinator, and other employees from the county Fire and Emergency Services Department were at an annual conference held by the California Emergency Services Association, in Yosemite National Park.

Helgren said he woke up about 12:30 a.m. Oct. 9 when Hamill pounded on his door. Someone from the county’s fire dispatch center, Redcom, had called Hamill to alert him to the fires. By then, the Tubbs fire, the most destructive of the blazes, had already been burning for nearly two hours on its way west from near Calistoga. It would reach Santa Rosa city limits by 2 a.m. and level more than 1,000 homes in Fountaingrove. By about 3 a.m. it had leaped over six lanes of Highway 101 and was burning through Coffey Park, where about 1,300 homes were destroyed.

“The initial report from Redcom was there were at least 12 fires currently burning in Sonoma County,” Helgren said. “And so we immediately tried to begin to understand where those fires were burning and what potentially was at risk.”

County workers including part-time emergency services staff were already gathering to help first responders coordinate evacuations, evacuation centers and other immediate resources. Helgren said he contacted the county’s interim director of the fire and emergency services, Jim Colangelo, and they decided to open up a central emergency operations center.

“It quickly became evident these were fast-moving fires,” Helgren said.

They hopped into cars and headed back to Sonoma County. Helgren said he was in constant contact with staff, making phone calls from the road, yet it was only when he got to northbound Highway 101 near Petaluma, when he saw fire in the hills near Lakeville Highway, that he began to witness the scale of the disaster. Traffic was backed up as he approached Santa Rosa. Ambulances were driving in the highway median.

“There were huge flame lengths on the west side (of Highway 101) that I never would have imagined. Kaiser was in the middle of being evacuated,” Helgren recalled.

“The smoke and the wind, all that was occurring, it was very sobering.”

He walked into the door of the county’s main operations center at 5:50 a.m.

They had planned for floods, earthquakes and fires, with protocols set in place and county staff designated for certain roles. But Helgren said his team had not anticipated the size and scale of the firestorm that broke out Oct. 8.

“This was well beyond what we were planning,” he said.

You can reach Staff Writer Julie Johnson at 707-521-5220 or julie.johnson@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @jjpressdem.

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©2017 The Press Democrat (Santa Rosa, Calif.)

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