Preparedness

Statewide Emergency Alerts Bill Passes California Legislature

The emergency office would be required to develop training for officials that would include how to operate technology that can force emergency warnings onto cellphones.

by J.D. Morris, The Press Democrat, Santa Rosa, Calif. / August 30, 2018

(TNS) - A bill that would create statewide standards for warning the public about wildfires, floods, earthquakes and other emergencies awaits Gov. Jerry Brown’s signature after both houses of the Legislature voted unanimously to approve it this week.

Senate Bill 833 was put forward by several North Coast lawmakers, including Sen. Mike McGuire, D-Healdsburg, after widespread public criticism about ineffective emergency notifications during last year’s firestorm. The legislation passed Monday in the state Assembly and Tuesday in the state Senate.

“Lives depend on the Legislature and the governor taking swift action to ensure statewide emergency alert standards are adopted, training for local emergency managers is implemented and we invest in a more proactive and effective mutual aid response system,” McGuire said in a statement earlier this week. “In the age of mega-fires, we need to have a universal emergency alert system in all 58 counties.”

McGuire introduced the bill in partnership with Sens. Bill Dodd and Jerry Hill, along with Assemblymembers Cecilia Aguiar-Curry, Marc Levine and Jim Wood.

The bill would require the state Office of Emergency Services to create emergency alert guidelines, in consultation with government groups, cellphone service providers and other stakeholders, by July 1.

All counties and cities in the state would receive a copy of the guidelines, which the emergency services office could require them to follow in order to receive certain grant funds.

Within six months of making the guidelines available, the emergency office would be required to develop training for local officials that would include how to operate technology that can force emergency warnings onto the cellphones of people in harm’s way. Sonoma County, the hardest-hit area in last year’s firestorms, was heavily faulted for not using that system, called Wireless Emergency Alerts, when October’s fires broke out.

“This is something that we have to take ownership of and improve upon,” said Sonoma County Board of Supervisors Chairman James Gore. “There has to be some kind of standardization. It’s a must.”

Santa Rosa resident Jessica Tunis, whose mother, Linda, died in the Tubbs fire, hailed the bill’s legislative passage as a “huge” moment.

At McGuire’s request, Tunis traveled to Sacramento twice to testify in support of the bill.

“It’s gonna save lives,” she said Wednesday. “What people don’t realize is how each county has their own protocol, their own software. It’s really disorganized, and this will standardize it.”

Tunis, 50, believes her mother could have made it out of the Journey’s End mobile home park had Sonoma County used the Wireless Emergency Alerts system after the firestorm ignited late Oct. 8.

As glad as she was about the bill’s passage, however, Tunis said she didn’t want others to have a “false sense of security,” noting it will take months for the standards to be developed.

Sonoma County is already moving forward with its own emergency alerts changes in light of the firestorm controversy.

The county is restructuring its emergency management division and will be conducting a live test of its alerting program, including the Wireless Emergency Alerts, in two weeks.

You can reach Staff Writer J.D. Morris at 707-521-5337 or jd.morris@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter@thejdmorris.

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©2018 The Press Democrat (Santa Rosa, Calif.)

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