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Despite efforts to improve it, disaster alert system still flawed

Sign up to be warned

For a list of emergency warning resources and to sign up for Sonoma County's SoCo Alert messaging program, visit

socoemergency.org

_____

For more stories on the anniversary of the October firestorm, go

here.

_____

For more stories on the rebuilding efforts in Sonoma County's four fire zones: Coffey Park, Fountaingrove, the greater Mark West area and Sonoma Valley, go

here.

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.

Sign up to be warned

For a list of emergency warning resources and to sign up for Sonoma County's SoCo Alert messaging program, visit

socoemergency.org

_____

For more stories on the anniversary of the October firestorm, go

here.

_____

For more stories on the rebuilding efforts in Sonoma County's four fire zones: Coffey Park, Fountaingrove, the greater Mark West area and Sonoma Valley, go

here.

Godley said he and other local officials have been pushing the Federal Communications Commission, which regulates cellphone companies, and FEMA, which oversees public emergency warning programs like cellphone notifications, to force telecom firms to improve the system soon, before the next fire, flood or hurricane.

“Local governments are dependent on the federal warning systems, but we can't dictate performance standards. We can't change how many characters the cellphone carriers allow,” Godley said. “We need them to step up. It's nearly two years since the fires. We need improvements.”

Last week, Santa Rosa officials traveled to Washington, D.C., to meet with the Federal Communications Commission to share what's been learned in Sonoma County and press the agency to prioritize improvements.

Godley, who participated in the meeting remotely, urged commission members to fast-track and enforce regulations requiring companies to expand the length of messages, enhance the ability of governments to send alerts in other languages such as Spanish, and improve the ability to send messages within a specific geographic area.

One change expected after November is a shift from geo-targeting to geo-fencing, which could dramatically enhance the ability to communicate with people, according to Wade Witmer, deputy director of FEMA's Integrated Public Alert and Warning System.

Geo-targeting is like drawing a circle on a map and hoping there are enough cellphone towers to transmit to those areas. Geo-fencing sends the message more broadly with embedded data that tells each phone to display the message if it is within a certain area.

Witmer said California's wildfires have helped FEMA push these advancements to the forefront.

“The national attention that happened with the Northern California wildfires raised a lot of awareness and opened a lot of doors,” Witmer said.

Telecommunication firms are also central to 911 systems. State Sen. Mike McGuire, D-Healdsburg, said it took six hours for these companies to alert local emergency officials during the 2017 fires that the 911 system was down within an area of the Tubbs fire zone. In 2018, when the Camp fire burned into Paradise, Butte County officials weren't alerted to a similar 911 failure until five hours after it was detected, he said. Senate Bill 670, passed by both houses and now on the governor's desk, would require these companies to report any problems with the 911 system with one hour.

“Residents were unable to call into 911,” McGuire said. “But there was no law in California that mandates telecom providers have to tell state emergency managers that 911 and telephone services are down, so they weren't informed.”

Another significant improvement to the county's preparedness is a built-in plan for quickly communicating urgent information in Spanish. When the fires broke out in the middle of the night in 2017, chief deputy Sonoma County counsel Alegría De La Cruz was in the county's emergency center and realized urgent messages to the community were only being sent out in English.

She quickly changed roles, becoming a translator that night and helping to build a network of Spanish speakers who banded together to provide crucial support in the ensuing weeks. They translated public messages, took phone calls transferred from Spanish-speakers seeking information about evacuation shelters and other important issues, and attended public meetings to help government workers communicate.

Eventually, the county began holding public meetings with official Spanish translators. It started regularly sending Nixle messages in Spanish and even requested FEMA and other responding agencies send bilingual and bicultural personnel.

De La Cruz, who is also a Santa Rosa school board trustee, said that experience sharpened the county's commitment and capacity to reach Spanish-speaking residents at a time when immigrant communities are particularly vulnerable because of increasingly restrictive federal immigration policies.

“What I've seen from the inside of the county is so much more capacity and attention and ability to serve the non-English speaking community,” she said.

There's still work to be done. Officials sent out a public warning in August about potentially toxic smoke from a fire at a southwest Santa Rosa salvage and storage yard. But there was a 30-minute delay before the warning was issued in Spanish because the county needed to find someone to translate the message, officials said at the time.

In the end, McGuire, Godley and other officials have said residents must rely on their instincts and community connections to stay alert and prepared for an emergency. Warning systems don't always work. Cellphone ringers may be off. Electricity could be cut.

“You can't assume you're safe because there's no warning,” Godley said.

You can reach Staff Writer Julie Johnson at 707-521-5220 or julie.johnson@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @jjpressdem.

EDITOR'S NOTE: Shirlee Zane was chairman of the Board of Supervisors during the 2017 wildfires. James Gore became chairman in 2018. An earlier version of this story incorrectly described the timing of his one-year term as chairman.

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