SoCal Wildfires Raise Questions On Emergency Warnings

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On Dec. 4, a group of California legislators discussed the shortcomings of the state's emergency alert system, which failed to notify hundreds of thousands of residents during the October fires that destroyed nearly 9,000 homes and killed 44 people in Northern California. Two days later, the state sent out its largest emergency alert to date.

"Strong winds overnight creating extreme fire danger," read the message sent to cellphone users in eight counties in Southern California. "Stay alert. Listen to authorities."

The Wireless Emergency Alert was sent at approximately 8 p.m. PST, The New York Times reports. As many as 22 million residents in Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside, San Bernardino, San Diego, Santa Barbara and Ventura counties received the notification. Contrast that to Oct. 9, when Sonoma County officials decided not to warn residents about the Northern California fires.

There's no centralized emergency alert system in California the same way there is for 911 or Amber Alerts, but Democratic state Sen. Mark McGuire said "maybe there should be" at a three-hour joint hearing of the Committee of Emergency Management and the Committee on Communications and Conveyance.

"We are at a point where we need to implement standardized processes that really guide all of the users into a standardized practice with specific standards that they need to meet," said Mark Ghilarducci, director of the Governor’s Office of Emergency Services, according to SF Gate. "That can be done administratively or legislatively. The challenge with that is, while there is a broad set of ways to push information out to the public, there is no one way with best standards."

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Wireless Emergency Alerts can only target large geographic regions. They have inconsistent effectiveness in their ability to warn residents and don't reach residences without cellphones. The messages can also be vague -- they are limited to 90 characters.

Sending the alerts can also cause panic in areas where there was never any danger, possibly creating problems for first responders. The San Francisco Chronicle recounts a June incident in Riverside County in which local police and fire departments had to explain on social media that the alert didn't apply to their municipalities. It was for this reason that Sonoma County Fire and Emergency Services Coordinator Zachary Hamill chose not to send the wireless alert during the October blazes in Northern California.

"If I had done the Wireless Emergency Alert I would have been notifying all of the cities and unincorporated areas in the county," said Hamill. "I didn’t need to do that, I needed to focus on who specifically needed [help]."

Firefighters and members of law enforcement instead relied on radio broadcasts, automated calls, email and text alerts and physically shouting warnings in neighborhoods to get the word out that residents needed to evacuate. Still, for some the emergency warning is thought to have been too late. Dozens of people died.

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When the Ventura County fire erupted late on Dec. 4, it bore a striking resemblance to the conditions that had led to the wine country fires months before. BuzzFeed reports that within less than 48 hours, five fires were burning in Southern California. Officials felt there was too great a danger to not send an alert.

"What happened in Sonoma was an overnight firestorm that happened in a matter of hours," said Kelly Huston, deputy director of the Governor's Office of Emergency Services. "That same potential faced us tonight. It was the same conditions. We can't over-alert people in these situations and we felt the need to amplify the severity of the situation using all the tools we can to make them pay attention."

There still exists the possibility of people in unaffected areas getting panicked by the news, leading to traffic jams that could prevent at-risk individuals from getting out. But Ventura County Fire Department official Steve Kaufmann said the local alerts it sent actually prevented traffic by prompting some residents to leave before law enforcement came to evacuate the neighborhood.

"One of the things we have noticed is that if we rely on one system, that fails," Kaufmann said. "People aren't registered for some alerts. Cell towers go down. We used every single thing possible to get the word out so that every person who could be affected would hopefully get a warning in some way."

The December fires will add to things to take into account on Dec. 14, when state legislators meet for a second session on emergency alert systems.

Sources: The New York Times, SF Gate, San Francisco Chronicle, BuzzFeed / Featured Image: Staff Sgt. Joseph McKee/U.S. Air Force / Embedded Images: DarrenRD/Wikimedia Commons, U.S. Forest Service

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