Wine Country Fires Prompt New Alert Legislation

A number of California lawmakers are behind a push to create uniform emergency alert protocols after the existing system failed to alert residents during recent wildfires.

by Joaquin Palomino, San Francisco Chronicle / January 8, 2018
Fire from a distant mountain is seen from Kenwood, Calif., Tuesday, Oct. 10, 2017. Some of the largest blazes in Northern California were in Napa and Sonoma counties, home to dozens of wineries that attract tourists from around the world. AP/Jeff Chiu

(TNS) — North Bay lawmakers have introduced a bill to bolster the ability of emergency officials to contact residents who may be in harm’s way — a topic that has been scrutinized since last year’s devastating wildfires.

The legislation, introduced by multiple lawmakers, including state Sen. Mike McGuire, D-Healdsburg, would create uniform statewide emergency notification protocols. It also would require all counties to develop and adopt guidelines for using Wireless Emergency Alerts, a federally administered system that can send Amber Alert-style messages to cell phones in a disaster area.

As The Chronicle and others have reported, many North Bay residents said they received no official warning and were blindsided by the rapidly spreading flames that sparked in multiple counties in October.

“The size and scope of wild land fire events in California are only getting worse,” McGuire said in a statement. “It’s clear there are shortcomings in our emergency alert system and residents deserve timely notifications and up-to-date information.”

Some experts said that statewide systems can be useful for regional or large-scale disasters, but in smaller incidents notification decisions are often better left to local leaders.

“They know their infrastructure the best, they know their resource and responsibility the best,” said Troy Harper, the general manager of OnSolve, which provides the technology behind many emergency notification programs nationwide, including Sonoma County’s.

One of the bill’s authors, Sen. Bill Dodd, D-Napa, said the legislation will establish notification standards and expectations — along with protocols for how to achieve them — but he expects there will be some flexibility for local emergency managers.

“This bill is designed to make sure that every person in the state, regardless of where they are, gets notified in an adequate manner when there’s a natural disaster,” Dodd said.

California counties currently use a patchwork of systems during a disaster to warn people in imminent danger, which include calling landline or cell phones, sending text or email messages, or sounding physical sirens. Many of those systems require people to sign up to get a message on their cell phones or computers.

In Sonoma County, which bore the brunt of the damage during the October wildfires, only about 2 percent of county residents were enrolled in one of the primary warning systems four months prior to the blazes. An additional database of landline telephone numbers had the potential to reach about half the county, said Sonoma County spokeswoman Jennifer Larocque.

Many of the warning calls that went out in Sonoma County during the early and most destructive hours of the fires failed to reach people, a Chronicle review of county data found.

A Wireless Emergency Alert may have gotten to more people, but emergency managers in Sonoma County chose not to send one, fearing it would have pinged cell phones in areas that were not immediately threatened, potentially creating traffic jams and flooding 911 lines.

Officials across the country have expressed similar concerns, complaining that the system has been unable to reliably target specific areas and could send only short, 90-character messages. In Napa and Yuba counties, which were also hit by the October fires, officials had declined to even enroll in the system due to its limitations.

Recent upgrades implemented after the North Bay fires will make wireless alerts more precise and increase text character length.

“With enhanced geo-targeting capabilities, the county welcomes the efforts of the California Legislature to standardize emergency alerts for the benefit of our communities and visitors,” Larocque said. “Any redundancy we can build into our alert system, whether that be alerts to cell phones, sirens, landlines, social media, radio and TV, will increase our ability to send critical information to our residents.”

The proposed legislation would create standards for when counties should use the wireless alert system, and require that notifications be sent through multiple channels, including both landline and cell phones. It’s unclear where the funding would come from.

“We’re always playing catch-up. There has to be a disaster before we really prioritize safety, notifications or any of these things,” said one of the bill’s authors, Sen. Jerry Hill, D-San Mateo. “This is an opportunity that we have to grasp and move forward on while the recognition of the inadequacy of the system is paramount in people’s minds.”

©2018 the San Francisco Chronicle Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.