North Coast lawmakers Friday introduced legislation requiring all California counties to have an emergency alert program capable of pushing messages to cellphones and follow new statewide standards for warning people in harm’s way.
The bill comes after opt-in emergency warning systems used in Sonoma County during the deadly October firestorm failed to reach most people in danger, drawing sharp criticism from many who evacuated or lost their homes and prompting a state review.
Given the growing size and severity of wildfires and other natural disasters in California, it’s time to standardize how local authorities provide essential information during an emergency, said state Sen. Mike McGuire, D-Healdsburg.
“Thousands of our neighbors were caught unaware when the North Bay fire storm ripped through their communities,” McGuire said. “Currently there are several different warning systems available to counties throughout California. Some systems require opt-in, others are universal, but California doesn’t have a statewide standard for emergency alerts.”
McGuire co-authored the bill with state Sen. Bill Dodd, D-Napa; and assemblymembers Marc Levine, D-San Rafael, Jim Wood, D-Healdsburg and Cecilia Aguiar-Curry, D-Winters. It includes mention of unspecified state funding to help cities and counties get the necessary software.
Sonoma County residents have been sharply critical of county emergency officials for relying solely on opt-in programs — such as Nixle and SoCoAlert — that only went to landlines and those who had signed up to get emails or cellphone messages beforehand. Those messages reached only a fraction of the people in the path of the October fires, which burned 137 square miles in Sonoma County, destroyed 5,100 homes and killed 24 people.
Records show the alerts failed to connect with 54 percent of telephone numbers, which county officials said was partly the result of damaged cellphone towers and burned utility lines.
Sonoma County officials opted not to warn people about the fires through the Amber Alert-style program capable of pushing emergency messages to cellphones, called Wireless Emergency Alert. The county’s emergency services manager, Christopher Helgren, said the program had been ruled out for such a disaster because Helgren was concerned it would broadcast messages to people not in danger and create unneeded panic and confusion.
Helgren did not respond to a request for comment on Friday.
Lake County, where no one died in the October fires, used the forced alerts, as did Ventura and Los Angeles counties in the Southern California fires last month.
The bill would require each county emergency management office be trained and ready to use the federal Wireless Emergency Alert system.
Currently, not all of California’s 58 counties use the program, including Napa County. McGuire said he didn’t know how many counties don’t currently use it.
The state Office of Emergency Services would oversee the new statewide “red alert” program, ensuring counties participate in annual training programs, follow standards for when and how to use the alerts.
Counties would be required to immediately notify the state after sending a Wireless Emergency Alert message, so state emergency officials can then send the same message on a broader set of platforms, from electronic highway billboard signs to television and radio emergency alerts.
McGuire said the October firestorm, which killed 44 people across Northern California, made it clear counties “can’t rely on one or two means of communication” and need access to multiple platforms. Many people in Sonoma County had functional cellphones during the first several hours of the fires before connections were lost as towers and utility lines were damaged or destroyed.