California is installing an earthquake warning system. The state participates in a global tsunami alert network, and there’s a government unit dedicated to predicting floods.
The goal is obvious: save lives by giving people time to prepare and, if necessary, flee.
Yet in the early hours of October’s wildfires, Sonoma County authorities didn’t use, or even contemplate using, a system designed to reach virtually everyone in a disaster area.
Explanations to date have been slow in coming and not particularly satisfying, boiling down to wireless alerts couldn’t be targeted tightly enough, and people trying to escape may have impeded first responders headed into the fire zone.
However, with the fires spreading rapidly, and limited resources available, many first responders were reduced to honking their horns or running door-to-door telling people to evacuate.
Not everyone got the message.
Twenty-three people died in Sonoma County, many of them elderly, all of them trapped in homes that burned to the ground.
In Mendocino County, where nine people perished, elected officials already are focused on improving their early-warning systems. A state legislative committee is planning hearings in December on emergency alerts.
Sonoma County supervisors owe their constituents an unsparing review of notification systems, how they were deployed in the critical hours of Oct. 8 and Oct. 9 and whether new protocols need to be established for future emergencies.
The county is authorized to use Wireless Emergency Alerts, an Amber Alert-style system that sends messages, preceded by a loud noise, to every cellphone in a specified area — even phones set to be silent.
Instead, the county relied on Nixle and So Co Alert, which send text messages and/or email only to those people who have signed up to receive them.
Only a few thousand people had signed up for Nixle or Soco Alert. Even Supervisor Susan Gorin, who lost her home in the Nuns fire, wasn’t aware of them.
In the days after the fires erupted, as many as 15,000 people an hour were signing up. With the emergency passed, will they disconnect? Who will tell people who move into the area they need to sign up?
And how effective is a system that doesn’t include the noisy tones that precede a Wireless Emergency Alert, especially when disaster strikes in the wee hours when people are sleeping?
These questions need answers.
Sonoma County emergency officials also owe the public a more complete explanation of their concerns about the wireless system, which they said cannot be targeted tightly enough. Those registering for Nixle need only give a Zip code. That hardly seems to allow for accurate geo-targeting.
In Lake County, which has painful experience with wildfires, officials favor the wireless alert system and used it Oct. 9 to contact people in the path of the Sulphur fire. There were no fire fatalities in Lake County.
In the wake of this fall’s hurricanes and fires, the Federal Communications Commission ordered an upgrade of the system to allow more precise targeting.
Even then, however, the system will depend on cellular service, which was interrupted in some areas by the fires — a fact that needs to be considered in any evaluation.