Emergency alert: Sonoma County could have sent a mass-alert to every cellphone in the region as the Tubbs fire advanced. Why didn’t it?
Officials say wide alarm could have caused a panic
Sonoma County could have sent out an emergency mass-blast alert to every cellphone in the region Sunday night as the deadly Tubbs fire grew but chose not to, saying the overkill alarm would have hampered emergency efforts.
County officials are defending their decision, but they are facing similar “when and how to use it” questions that arose in Santa Clara County after February floods along Coyote Creek chased thousands from their San Jose homes with little or no warning.
On Thursday evening, there were 17 dead in Sonoma County — more than half the 31 total fatalities so far — and 400 people were listed as missing. County officials said putting out a mass cellphone alert would have done more harm than good because the area covered by such an alarm can’t be restricted and far more people would have been alerted than were actually in harm’s way, causing the potential for panic.
“It would cause unnecessary evacuations and delays for emergency vehicles reaching people in areas in need,” said county spokeswoman Jennifer Larocque. “In order not to slow down response to people actually in need of help, we chose not to send the notice.”
Instead, Sonoma County alerted people through Nixle alerts — the first one of those electronic messages was sent at 10:51 p.m.— and a system called SoCo Alerts that notifies people via cellphone, but people have to sign up for those services. They also used a “reverse 911” system that calls landlines in an affected area and hit up homes the old fashioned way.
In Butte County— where they don’t have the mass wireless alert capability — officials relied on those kind of old-fashioned methods to achieve a massive evacuation in February, when it was feared the Oroville Dam could fail and release awall of water to ravage the region downstream.
It’s not certain how effective the additional alert wouldhave been in Sonoma County; cellphone reception for many went out when towers were torched in the fire.
Sonoma County officials did not comment further on Thursday, but emergency Services Coordinator Zachary Hamill previously told the San Francisco Chronicle that the county will review its decision not to issue a Wireless Emergency Alert.
“This will have to be one of those after-action items we review and determine how we can do this better next time,” he said.
In March, Sonoma County emergency coordinator Kelsey Scanlon said the county was working on making the system “more nuanced.”
“Right now (wireless alerts) reach a very large number of people, and we can’t narrow it down to a specific area,” Scanlon said. “It’s very excessive and very unnecessary.”
It’s not the first time a jurisdiction has appeared unsure of how to use a potentially effective means to promptly let people know of a budding disaster.
Santa Clara County faced criticism after the devastating February floods in San Jose — the capability to use such an alert was technically there, but emergency operators in various cities were not trained or aware of it. The system is now in place and training complete, but there was a goof the first time it was used in July when a message went out to a broader region than intended, alerting the entire county to a shelter-in-place situation due to a brush fire near Saratoga.
The message needs to be very brief; only 90 characters are allowed — that’s 50 letters short of a Tweet. In June, the Riverside County Sheriff’s Department sent an ominous message: “Emergency alert. Fire Warning in this area until 1:37 AMEDT Evacuate Now Riverside C.”
The relatively small-scale evacuation advisory — it was not mandatory — was sent to residents of three counties.
The Riverside Press-Enterprise reported that it resulted in confusion, with some residents packing to leave, others consulting social media for advice, and some people “huddled together to try and decipher the alert — the ‘ Riverside C’ part proved puzzling to some.”
“The message wasmeant for those intended communities, but accidentally sent to a larger geographic area,” sheriff’s Sgt. Chris Willison told the Press-Enterprise. “Accidents happen.”
The warning comes in the form of a jarring alarm thatmakes cellphones blare and tremble, like an Amber Alert. All cellphones on major carriers automatically get the alert unless the user opts out.
And while Sonoma officials said it was an all- or-- nothing regional alert decision, other jurisdictions have more specificity about areas that can be issued a warning.
According to the Federal Communications Commission factsheet, alerts are generally sent to a “geographic area no larger than the county or counties affected” but “participating carriers may be able to target alerts to smaller areas.”
Patty Eaton of the Santa Clara County Office of Emergency Services said their system allows the cellphone alerts to be more localized. Emergency operators draw a polygon on a computer map to contain a region to be activated, using an overlay of the location of cellphone towers. She said representatives from the Everbridge communications system the county uses came out for training sessions and presentations earlier this year.
“It’s a complicated system, and the technology is not perfect,” she said. “It’s unrealistic to think you could isolate it down to a household, but it’s very effective. We have a very solid understanding of how the system could be used.”
Brad Alexander, spokesman for the state Office of Emergency Services, said the wireless alerts are one component of communication during a crisis along with the sign-up alert services, robo-calls and knocking on doors.
“All these are different tools in the tool shed, and it’s up to local emergency managers to understand what their tools are,” he said. “They have to make tough decisions on very short notice.”