SACRAMENTO — The failure of cellphone and other privately owned systems crippled emergency-warning efforts during the North Coast’s deadly October wildfires, and the state lacks authority to order those companies to strengthen their systems against disasters, the state’s top emergency manager said Monday.
Mark Ghilarducci, director of the state Office of Emergency Services, was among several who testified at a legislative hearing investigating the failures of emergency-warning systems during the recent fires.
The fires killed 44 people and destroyed nearly 9,000 homes and other structures. Ghilarducci called it the largest loss of homes in any California disaster since the 1906 quake in San Francisco.
The fires spread at night as many victims slept, knocking out cellphones, land lines, internet and cable television in some areas as cell towers, and other equipment burned, hampering alert services that relied on texts, social media and broadcast.
Lawmakers described neighbors, police and firefighters knocking on doors and honking car horns to waken and warn residents.
“We know that particularly the elderly and the vulnerable lacked those important minutes to evacuate,” said Sen. Hannah-Beth Jackson, a Democrat from Santa Barbara.
One problem is that most emergency alert systems operate on privately owned phone and other communications systems, Ghilarducci said. Financial concerns may keep those companies from expanding and strengthening their networks to withstand disasters, he and lawmakers said.
“The government does not really have authority over that to ensure that that redundancy and resiliency is put in place,” Ghilarducci said.
Burned cellphone towers crippled one system increasingly used by public-safety agencies: Nixle, which requires users to sign up to get text alerts, said Sen. Mike McGuire, a Healdsburg Democrat.
McGuire said two things would have made a big difference in Napa County, which was among those hit hardest by the fires.
“A siren on a stick, and the broadcast system,” he said.
McGuire and some other lawmakers called for warnings that activated a range of systems, including civil-defense sirens, cell alerts, TV and radio and social media.