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

The Mercury News Weekend - - FRONT PAGE - By Eric Kurhi ekurhi@ba­yare­anews­group.com Con­tact Eric Kurhi at 408-920- 5852.

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.”

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