Sonoma County did not consider using mass cellphone alerts to warn of fires, top emergency official says
Long before Oct. 8, when more than a dozen wildfires erupted across Sonoma County, including a deadly blaze that would grow into California’s most destructive inferno, county emergency officials knew they had a tool that could force targeted warning messages onto the cellphones of people in harm’s way.
They did not, however, consider using that tool in the disaster, a new disclosure made last week by the county’s top emergency services executive.
Last year, when the county first evaluated the government notification system, used to broadcast Amber Alert messages and other emergency notices, Christopher Helgren, the county’s emergency services manager, decided it had little use during local disasters. He said he wasn’t confident in the system’s ability to send geographically targeted messages to an area smaller than the whole county.
So when the fires broke out last month within hours across Sonoma County, from Geyserville to Lakeville, the county’s five staff members trained to send a forced message to cellphones didn’t even discuss whether to use the Wireless Emergency Alert system to warn people in the fires’ path, Helgren said in an phone interview Thursday.
Instead, they and other emergency personnel sent dozens of messages through opt-in cellphone and landline programs that reached a much smaller fraction of people in the county.
“It was determined in the case of the Emergency Alert System (for TV and radio) and Wireless Emergency Alert (for cellphones) that they are tools to be used for a wide-alerting application for a disaster where you want to reach large areas of people, such as a tornado and a hurricane,” Helgren said. “It was determined there was little specific application for those alerts in our county.”
His explanation marked the first detailed public comments by a county emergency services executive since the first week of the fires about the county’s controversial decision not use the Amber Alert-style warnings to notify people about the wind-driven firestorm that night. The fires would burn 142 square miles of Sonoma County, kill ?23 people here and destroy more than 5,100 homes.
Helgren said the strategy was to send targeted messages, via the opt-in programs run through Nixle and SoCo Alerts, to smaller groups of residents in immediate danger. A wider broadcast to all cellphones, he said, ran the risk of prompting people not under threat of fire to evacuate and clog the roads for emergency responders and those in danger.
Learning from Lake County
But officials with the Federal Emergency Management Administration, California Office of Emergency Services and the software company that created the system capable of sending Wireless Emergency Alerts said the main cellphone companies have been able to send geographically targeted government alerts since 2013.
That was done in Lake County last month when fire threatened homes in Clearlake and Clearlake Oaks. Lake County sheriff’s officials sent multiple warnings about the blaze - which eventually burned about 2,207 acres and destroyed nearly 140 homes - with Wireless Emergency Alert messages that night, the first at 2:15 a.m. Oct. 9 and pushed to about 840 cellphones, sheriff’s officials said.
Helgren said Sonoma County uses the same software as Lake County, and the difference is primarily county policy.
“We recognize WEA alerts can be targeted, but not to the level of specificity to be effective,” Helgren said. “The cellular company controls the geographic distribution and the information is proprietary by cellphone provider so we can’t know where these alerts would have gone.”
Helgren, who spoke over the phone alongside Deputy County Administrator Rebecca Wachsberg, said he believed the county used the best digital tools available. He shared no reflection on what could have been done differently.
“If there had been a better way to notify those in danger and prevent loss of life, we would have used it,” Helgren said. “We recognize people in our community are grieving, and we’re truly sorry.”
‘Something needs to be done’
Sonoma County officials did issue evacuation notifications throughout the night - initially with firefighters and deputies on the ground banging on doors, blaring sirens, urging people to evacuate over the loudspeakers in the rural communities along Petrified Forest Road, where the Tubbs fire made its first advance from Calistoga toward Santa Rosa.
But a vocal group of residents have said they received no official warning even hours into the firefight. Many said they received only phone calls from friends and family urging them to flee.