Bay Area Fires Expose Emergency Warning Flaws

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Even after extensive fires burned through Sonoma County in 2017, new and existing problems with emergency alert and communication systems have exposed themselves in the current Bay area wildfires, according to KGO-TV. Much of the problem is the delay in residents getting the evacuation signals.

Sonoma County Director of Emergency Management, Chris Godley, says they sent out 40 alerts in a two-day period last week. He said part of the problem is that the alert system is built and maintained by wireless broadband companies, but primarily used by the government.

“There’s no financial incentive to refine and develop the technologies,” he told KGO-TV. When asked how he thought communications went last week compared to 2017, he said, “Better but not perfect, by a long shot.” 

“How do people receive these alerts hours after we send them out?” Godley asked. “There’s a real latency in getting these messages delivered. We think sometimes it’s because people drive back into the area and they get the alert late, or they turn on their phone,” he told KGO-TV.

EOC staff In Napa County were about to send out an Amber Alert-style warning about the fires last week, but saw an error in the private vendor’s coding. Instead, they sent out a Nixle alert, which potentially reaches fewer people because it’s an “opt in” system.

Napa County spokeswoman Janet Upton told KGO-TV that the county alerted the vendor, Everbridge, about the problem, and the company is now working on a nationwide solution.

Many residents wrongly received evacuation orders. One Santa Rosa resident says she received an emergency evacuation alert, although the fire was 40 miles away in Lake County.

“I know that the alert and warning system is not perfect. There are many things that can go into alert and warnings failing, such as power lines going down, power going out, cell towers being burned down,” the resident told KGO-TV.

State Senator Bill Dodd of Napa has been an advocate for residents to be automatically signed up for alerts rather than having to “opt in” or sign up.

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