California Fire Takes Emergency Alert System “Back to the 1940s”

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UPDATE Paradise, California’s emergency alert system suffered a major performance failure when 17 cell towers were destroyed on the first day of the widespread Camp Fire on November 8, 2018, the Mendocino Beacon reported. According to the California Public Utilities Commission, 66 towers were out of service or sustained damage during the first two weeks of the fire. The towers left were overloaded with calls and texts trying to reach residents with emergency alerts, and in one zone, the failure rate for calls was 94 percent. 

Even in the best areas, 25 percent of emergency alerts did not reach residents.

Catherine Sandoval, Santa Clara University School of Law professor and former CPUC commissioner said, “That’s the problem with big fires: The infrastructure burns. What you end up with is a situation that takes us back to the 1940s, where heroic responders drive up and down streets, taking their lives into their hands, using bullhorns.”  

A Bay Area News Group released an analysis based on evacuation alert records from the Paradise and Chico police departments in Butte County, and also cell tower information from the CPUC. Issues revealed by the analysis were that officials did not send out warnings to every affected area, overwhelmed or damaged cellular infrastructure, kept messages from going through, and only one-quarter of residents signed up for Butte County’s CodeRED emergency alert system. The review showed a six-square-mile area of the town that never received an evacuation alert, and another four-mile stretch received a warning but no evacuation order until it was too late. Emergency alert messages were unsuccessful in reaching 10,869 residents, and Paradise Police failed to reach 4,099.

According to the Beacon, the alerts did not go through even for many residents that had previously signed up for CodeRED. Butte County’s alert system uses landlines, cell phones, social media, and emails to reach residents.

The nationwide Wireless Emergency Alert (WEA) system can send alerts to every WEA-enabled phone in a targeted area, unless consumers chose to opt-out. (They can’t opt-out of a presidential WEA message, but can choose to block others.) WEA depends on operational cell towers to transmit signals to cell phones. Jamie Barnett, former chief of the FCC’s Public Safety and Homeland Security Bureau, said: “Cell phones are really just little radios, and they are dependent on the viability of the cell tower and the viability of the ‘backhaul’ into the network.”

In a meeting held on the third day after the fire began, Sheriff Kory Honea regretted the system failure, saying, “In the heat of this, it was moving so fast, it was difficult to get that information out.” To prevent this issue in the future, there are new state laws in place such as mandated guidelines, training programs for responders, and the authorization for counties to acquire information about residents from utility bills in order to send them emergency notifications, regardless of their voluntary participation.

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December 19, 2018

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