Despite efforts to improve it, disaster alert system still flawed
Wikiup resident Susan Sloan was prepared in 2017 when fires broke out on a Sunday night in October across Sonoma County.
She was among several thousand residents who had signed up for official emergency notifications through the county's opt-in warning program, SoCo Alert. She had a landline telephone to receive the automated call alerting her to a fire just before midnight Oct. 8. Then the power went out.
“You could see the glow from behind the hills,” Sloan recalled. “My neighbors had come out onto their deck. They said it was just a warning, ‘Everything is fine.'?”
No, everything is not fine, Sloan recalls telling them.
“It's time to go, get your stuff and get out, the phone lines are down,'” Sloan said.
In many ways, that moment still represents the best-case scenario when it comes to warning people about fires, floods or other urgent public matters. Sloan got the message, she observed the threat, shared it with others and she got out of harm's way. Since the fires, she's taken her preparedness a step further by bringing together local firefighters and residents to help the neighborhood be ready for the next disaster.
The technology available to warn people about life-threatening hazards hasn't changed since 2017. And it's a startlingly imperfect system.
Unlike Sloan, many Sonoma County residents don't have landline telephones and received no public warning about a dozen wildfires racing toward their neighborhoods.
Sonoma County's failure to warn most people that night in October 2017 when a dozen fires broke out across the region drew public outcry that still resonates today. Residents are more concerned than ever about receiving timely information about public emergencies.
It has forced a dramatic shift in mindset and strategy among government officials responsible for emergency communications. In the two years since, the county has initiated two ambitious tests to analyze which warning systems work for different populations in different terrain.
“It was our biggest black eye,” Sonoma County Supervisor James Gore said of the lack of warnings in 2017. “We're now the point of the spear in terms of alert and warning.”
One key tool the county didn't employ in 2017 was the federal Wireless Emergency Alert system, a program that allows local agencies to push urgent messages out to the public on their cellphones during emergencies. Local emergency managers were concerned the messages would go out too broadly, triggering mass evacuations that would clog the roads.
Instead, they used opt-in systems that weren't effective in reaching most people. Thousands of households were still forced to flee in the middle of the night, many driving out rural roads in lines of traffic and surrounded by fire. People described harrowing escapes, dodging flames and abandoned vehicles. One woman fleeing in her car missed a sharp turn in the road and crashed not far from home. Her body was found down an embankment near the burned car.
Gore, chairman of the Board of Supervisors in 2018, vowed afterward the county would “wake up the world” using every method available the next time a disaster strikes.
Today, the county has adopted more than a half-dozen ways to warn people: Government cellphone alerts for any cellphone within an area, including visitors; opt-in programs like SoCoAlert and Nixle that allow users to choose how they receive information; warnings that interrupt television and radio broadcasts; alerts on specialized weather radios designed to activate during emergencies; hi-lo sirens on Sonoma County sheriff's patrol cars; and notifications posted on social media.
Last year and again this month, the county conducted tests to gauge the effectiveness of the federal Wireless Emergency Alert system and other programs to warn the public, such as SoCo Alert and NOAA weather radios. The results show the county is reaching more people than ever before, but there remain challenges with technology, geography and public participation that will prevent alerts from reaching everyone.
“There is no single system that will work for everybody,” county Emergency Management Director Christopher Godley said. “That's why we try to drill it into people's heads - you have to sign up for everything. Redundancy is key.”
While cellphones are central to everyday communication, their functions are controlled by private companies.
Telecom providers have missed the federal government's May deadline to increase the length of emergency messages local governments can push onto cellphones - still limiting messages to 90 characters though they are supposed to be expanded to 360 characters. Wireless phone companies are facing another deadline in November to fine-tune local officials' ability to target emergency alerts at cellphones within specific areas.