Revamping California Emergency Warning System Post-Wildfires


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UPDATE  Last month, fires blazed in Northern California, burning across 174 square miles, leaving 23 people dead, and destroying more than 5,100 homes in Sonoma County alone, and half a million residents had little to no warning. Years before this year’s natural disaster, federal officials knew technology used to broadcast official emergency warnings from cell towers was outdated, but the implementation of newer technology, which began in 2015, has been delayed by industry objections, reported The Press Democrat.

According to FCC officials, messages were too short, didn’t support web links and had the potential to be broadcast too widely. So, before the fires even began, Sonoma County officials already decided not to use the Wireless Emergency Alerts (WEA) to warn residents about approaching fires, citing the same shortcomings as the FCC. WEA “is an agreement between carriers and the federal government to carve out specific bandwidth to allow for those federally approved messages to be sent on behalf of a local jurisdiction to a detailed area, whether that’s a county, a city or an area drawn on a map.” 

And some residents are outraged that emergency personnel did not use the available technology. “If we had not been awakened by the phone call of a concerned friend who lived nearby, I would not be writing this note to you,” Bernie Krause, a famed soundscape ecologist who lost his Glen Ellen home in the fire, wrote in an email to The Press Democrat. “We’d be dead. We received no alert either by email, or smartphone or loudspeaker notices to evacuate. And we lost everything.”   

Now, WEA system is getting an overhaul. As of November 1, the FCC ordered carriers to enable embedded links and allow government emergency messages to be longer, an increase from 90 to 360 characters, Inside Towers reported. According to Neil Bregman, Santa Rosa’s emergency preparedness coordinator, this is a huge step forward. “To the extent it gives us more words — and a link could lead to a map, so the public understands — that becomes a significantly more useful tool than we’ve had in the past.”

During the fires in October, Sonoma County officials did send evacuation and warning alerts, but they relied on landline telephones and web-based solutions that required pre-registration. The WEA system was the only method available to Sonoma County officials that would have pushed notifications onto cell phones, regardless of whether the individual was local or had signed up for voluntary notifications, reported The Press Democrat.

The challenge with using WEA was fear of over-broadcasting information and clogging roadways, according to Zachary Hamill, Sonoma County’s emergency services coordinator. But what about using geo-targeting technology – which is not new – to reach the intended audience? According to a senior FEMA official, “The wireless carriers have been targeting to small areas for years. Companies including AT&T, Sprint, Verizon, T-Mobile, and MetroPCS all allow geographically focused messages, although smaller companies may still be working on that functionality.”

During the fires, Lake County used geo-targeting notifications, and no one was reported hurt or killed. The geo-targeting approach allows counties to target people within a “polygon shape on a map.” It doesn’t provide pinpoint accuracy, so many governments have turned to opt-in programs, asking residents to sign up, indicating where they live and how they wish to receive messages, either by email, phone call or text reported, The Press Democrat.

November 14, 2017               

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