EDITORIAL: Emergency Alert Systems Still Need a Major Upgrade

And, as in Sonoma County in October, first responders went door to door, urging people to flee.

by The Press Democrat, Santa Rosa, Calif. / August 13, 2018

(TNS) - With a “fire tornado” racing toward Redding neighborhoods on July 26, emergency officials in Shasta County started issuing mandatory evacuation orders.

They used reverse 911 calls, emergency announcements on TV and radio, opt-in text message systems and Amber alert-style cellphone warnings to get the word out.

And, as in Sonoma County in October, first responders went door to door, urging people to flee.

Three people perished, but thousands escaped as flames engulfed their neighborhoods, with authorities turning some two-way streets into one-way streets to facilitate traffic.

Credit lessons learned in October, when Sonoma County authorities, fearing panic, failed to use all of the tools at their disposal to warn residents about a ferocious wildfire that burned thousands of homes and took more than 20 lives.

Shasta County officials had some advantages over their counterparts in the North Bay.

While the Tubbs fire took barely two hours to spread from Calistoga to Santa Rosa, the Carr fire burned for three days before exploding in size and starting its run into Redding, giving authorities some time to prepare, rather than simply react.

And, unlike the Tubbs fire, which arrived in the middle of the night, when most people are sleeping, the Carr fire reached Redding in the early evening.

Even so, officials in Shasta County concede that, despite their multi-pronged effort, some people may not have received any warning.

After Sonoma County’s disastrous experience, it’s unlikely that emergency officials anywhere will neglect to issue widespread warnings of an impending disaster.

But 10 months later, state and local officials still need to determine which warning systems are most effective. Having witnessed the failures here, and the panic sown by a false nuclear attack warning in Hawaii in January, they also must ensure that the people charged with delivering warnings understand how to use those systems effectively.

“We have an antiquated patchwork of emergency alert systems across California,” state Sen. Mike McGuire, D-Healdsburg, said Friday.

McGuire is sponsoring legislation that would direct the governor’s Office of Emergency Services to work with telecommunications companies, local governments, federal agencies and others to develop emergency-alert guidelines by July 1 and to distribute them to every city and county in California.

SB 833 also would require the Office of Emergency Services to provide regular training in the use of Wireless Emergency Alerts, the Amber-alert style warnings that can be pushed out to practically every cellphone in a specified area.

McGuire set out to require all 58 counties to adopt the wireless alert system and establish statewide standards for using it. His bill, which has cleared the Senate and is awaiting a final vote on the Assembly floor, was scaled back to give local governments some flexibility in choosing their alert systems. But it still would require them to have a state-approved wireless alert system to qualify for emergency management grants. That seems appropriate, so long as they also have clear guidelines for use, regular training and accountability.

Local jurisdictions should be prohibited from relying solely on opt-in warning systems such as Nixle and SoCo Alert, which have low registration rates.

And any jurisdiction that uses reverse 911 calls or other landline-based systems should be required to update their phone lists on a regular basis.

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

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