Federal authorities knew technology used to broadcast official emergency warnings from cell towers was outdated years before deadly fires ignited last month in Sonoma County and throughout Northern California, forcing tens of thousands of people to flee for their lives, many with no warning.
Messages were too short, didn’t support web links and had the potential to be broadcast too widely, according to Federal Communication Commission members charged with regulating how cellphone companies issue government warnings. The commission in 2015 began a formal process to update the requirements and bring warning capabilities into step with technological advancements, but implementation was delayed by industry objections.
Sonoma County officials have cited those issues as factors in their controversial decision not to use the Amber Alert-type broadcasts to warn people about approaching fires that erupted Oct. 8 and ultimately burned across 174 square miles in the county, killing 23 people and destroying more than 5,100 homes.
Even with the program’s limitations, some residents have expressed outrage that county emergency services staff didn’t send Wireless Emergency Alerts, sidestepping a tool used by Lake County last month to warn Clearlake area residents threatened by flames.
“If we had not been awakened by the phone call of a concerned friend who lived nearby, I would not be writing this note to you,” Bernie Krause, a famed soundscape ecologist who lost his Glen Ellen home in the fire, wrote in an email. “We’d be dead. We received no alert either by email, or smartphone, or loudspeaker notices to evacuate. And we lost everything.”
The Wireless Emergency Alert messages go to most cellphones within a certain broadcast area, reaching even out-of-towners and overriding do-not-disturb settings with a distinct alert tone. The alerts look like text messages but they don’t use data and can be more efficient than automated phone calls or text messages, which go out in batches.
Now, the system is finally getting a long-awaited overhaul to catch up with advances in cellphone technology.
On Nov. 1, the FCC ordered cellphone companies to enable embedded links and allow government emergency messages to be longer, an increase from 90 to 360 characters.
The updates are significant improvements, said Neil Bregman, Santa Rosa’s emergency preparedness coordinator.
“To the extent it gives us more words — and a link could lead to a map so the public understands — that becomes a significantly more useful tool than we’ve had in the past,” said Bregman, adding that Sonoma County emergency staff have access to the program and can send a message on behalf of a city.
Federal Communications Commission members praised the new rules. Had they been implemented before the Northern California wildfires or hurricanes in Texas, Florida and Puerto Rico, the system “could have saved life and property,” Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel said.
“We shouldn’t be caught short like this again. ... We should address every one of these outstanding issues now — before the next disaster compels us to do so,” Rosenworcel said in a statement released when the new rules were published Nov. 1.
The changes also create a new test feature available to local governments and add a public safety category to the type of messages that can be sent. Previously, the categories were limited to presidential alerts, imminent threats and Amber Alert messages for suspected child abduction cases.