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Bill Would Require Cell Service Outage Warnings in Disasters

The California legislation follows multiple years of disastrous wildfires where residents didn't receive alerts about the oncoming infernos because of inoperable cell service infrastructure.

(TNS) — Telephone companies would need to alert California emergency officials of outages that prevent users from calling 911 or receiving emergency alerts under a new bill proposed by state Sen. Mike McGuire.

The proposal comes after back-to-back years of record-breaking wildfires throughout the state and notable shortcomings in how local emergency officials in several of those fire-ravaged areas alerted residents of the danger.

Currently, telephone companies aren’t obligated to report real-time information about service outages, such as where the outage is located, how many people are affected or when they expect repairs to be completed, McGuire’s office said in a press release Friday.

His legislation, Senate Bill 670, would require those companies to notify the California Office of Emergency Services, which oversees emergency preparedness and response, about system outages that impact customers’ ability to reach 911 or get emergency notifications. Telephone companies would have to report outages within 60 minutes of discovery.

The information would then be forwarded to local emergency offices and sheriff’s departments so they know which residents are cut off from 911 for help and are not receiving alerts and phone calls.

While landline service companies typically notify state emergency officials about outages within an hour, wireless and Internet-based service providers are inconsistent about reporting outages to Cal OES, agency spokesman Brad Alexander said in an email.

“Californians cannot afford to be without the most up-to-date information during times of disaster,” McGuire said. “Failure to report outages affecting 911 service or emergency alerting capabilities can wreak havoc on communities and puts the public’s safety at risk.”

Just last year, some Butte County residents said they received no official warning when the deadliest wildfire in state history raced into Paradise on Nov. 8, killing at least 85 people. Damaged cellular towers were among the reasons residents received no alerts, officials said.

Sonoma County emergency planners and authorities experienced the same problem in October 2017, when strong winds carried the Tubbs fire from Napa into Sonoma County before reaching parts of eastern Santa Rosa, killing 22 people.

County officials chose not to trigger Amber Alert-style warnings for fear of causing undue panic among people not in harm’s way and instead relied on opt-in platforms, like Nixle and SoCo Alerts, to warn residents of the fast-moving fire.

But about half of the alerts sent out through SoCo Alerts never made it to the telephone numbers in the county’s database because of damaged cellphone towers and downed utility lines, county officials said. A review by Cal OES in February 2018 found Sonoma County officials were unprepared to warn tens of thousands of residents during the October 2017 firestorm, with an outdated understanding of the latest wireless alert technology.

In September 2018, Gov. Jerry Brown signed into law a wildfire bill, also authored by McGuire, that established a statewide protocol for emergency alerts. Cal OES published the protocol in March.

Santa Rosa Fire Chief Tony Gossner and Sonoma County Sheriff Mark Essick testified before the state’s Energy, Utilities and Communications Committee on April 2 in support of McGuire’s new bill. Essick spoke about the events that unfolded during the October 2017 wildfires, and how Sheriff’s Office officials did not know downed cell sites were hindering their ability to warn residents.

“This piece of legislation is really going to help us know which messages are going through,” Essick said. “I can react and get my people out there.”

The bill has also received support from the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors, the California Fire Chiefs Association and the California State Sheriff’s Association, among others, McGuire’s office noted.

So far, the bill has received unanimous support from two legislative committees, including the Energy, Utilities and Communications Committee. It will need to pass through the Senate Appropriations Committee before heading to the Senate floor for a vote.

©2019 The Press Democrat (Santa Rosa, Calif.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.