Sonoma County set to run live emergency alert tests on Sept. 10 and 12

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Thousands of Sonoma County residents and visitors will receive emergency alerts next month during tests of the county’s warning system, nearly one year after county officials weathered widespread criticism for inadequately warning the public about the October firestorm.

On Sept. 10, the county will send a trial run of messages to everyone who has opted into its SoCo Alert system and landline telephones that can receive reverse 911 calls using the same technology. Then, on Sept. 12, the county will force test warnings onto cellphones of people in five targeted areas and run similar messages on radio and television channels countywide.

The county’s test warnings will come in advance of nationwide emergency alert tests set for Sept. 20, according to the Federal Emergency Management Agency. The national tests will use the same technology Sonoma County is using Sept. 12.

Sonoma County’s second round of tests will be the first of its kind on the West Coast, according to county officials, who had to get federal approval to move forward with the effort.

In the Sept. 12 tests, the county will run a live trial of the Wireless Emergency Alerts system, which forces warnings onto the cellphones of people in designated areas. The county didn’t send those Amber Alert-style warnings in the early hours of the October firestorm because it had previously ruled out the system for use in local emergencies — a shortfall that was panned by numerous fire survivors and faulted in a state government review several months later.

“It’s a pivotal step forward for the county to embrace and improve upon what didn’t work last year,” Board of Supervisors chairman James Gore said of the September tests. “I’m most excited about getting empirical data that shows us what’s working, where it works and where are the gaps.”

The county’s first test day will effectively serve as a prelude to the second one. About 10 a.m., officials will send messages to more than 280,700 landlines and SoCo Alert subscribers — telling them they are running tests of the federal systems two days later.

“We’re trying to do two things: One is, by delivering the message, we’re testing the SoCo Alert system,” said Christopher Godley, the county’s interim emergency manager. “And two, we’re giving those recipients a heads up about the second part of the test.”

When testing the Wireless Emergency Alerts system Sept. 12, also starting about 10 a.m., the county will aim to send messages to the Glen Ellen and Kenwood areas, Guerneville, Healdsburg, Penngrove and Roseland in southwest Santa Rosa. The five target spots were chosen because they represent “sample subsets of the whole county,” Godley said.

Alerts will be sent in both English and Spanish and will clearly be identified as tests, officials said. Messages could reach an estimated 50,000 people.

The test will help county officials and their city counterparts learn in real time exactly how specifically the messages can currently be targeted.

“Depending on where cell towers are and the way carriers push it out, it may bleed over into significantly larger areas,” said Neil Bregman, Santa Rosa’s emergency preparedness coordinator. “As much as we want to target to a very small area, it may go wider, and we want to understand that.”

The county’s former emergency manager has said he decided the year before the fires not to use Wireless Emergency Alerts during local disasters because he wasn’t confident the messages could be sent to an area smaller than the whole county.

But a review from the state Office of Emergency Services released in February said that decision was “influenced by a limited awareness and understanding” of the system and “outdated information regarding WEA’s technical capabilities.”

Gore said he’s not convinced the wireless alerts will work well across all geographical areas.

“I’m very confident in the geo-targeting abilities in flatland areas with good coverage,” he said. “I’m not confident in the areas where we have poor cell coverage and difficult topography, which is exactly where fires start.”

After the wireless testing is done, county officials will run a test of the Emergency Alert System, which sends notifications via the radio and television.

That round of testing is set to start between 11 a.m. and noon on local radio and television channels serving the county, officials said.

The alert will last about 1½ minutes at most and it will interrupt regular programming on both mediums.

County officials have already designated numerous first responders and rank-and-file government employees to watch out for the emergency alert test and provide feedback about what they heard and when. Members of the public will also be able to fill out a survey on a website included in the alert. Local leaders stressed they’re looking for as many people to participate as possible.

“We want people to get it, but we also want people to not get it, because we want to find out why,” said Paul Lowenthal, Santa Rosa’s assistant fire marshal. “That feedback … is going to be key.”

County officials cautioned that some of the details of the September tests are still in flux, and they could be derailed if an actual emergency — such as another fire — arises.

You can reach Staff Writer J.D. Morris at 707-521-5337 or jd.morris@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @thejdmorris.

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