Wireless Emergency Alert Not Used for Camp Fire

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Officials in Butte County, California, the location of the most destructive wildfire in the state’s history, are debating why the Butte County sheriff’s office did not originate a Wireless Emergency Alert to warn residents of the Camp Fire. As the fire raced towards homes in Paradise and Magalia, Butte County Sheriff’s officials deployed evacuation crews on-foot and messages through its opt-in CodeRed system, consisting of emails, reverse 911 calls and texts, reports Government Technology.

California agencies have nearly doubled their use of WEA in 2018, compared to 2017. Federal Emergency Management Agency data on WEA alerts show California city, county and state agencies issued 66 alerts last year, and 108 by mid-November 2018. The system has been promoted in statewide legislation. However, it’s unclear if the alert could have saved lives because cell phone service near Paradise is spotty and many elderly residents rely on landlines.

A new law will require the state’s Office of Emergency Services to develop emergency notification protocols for counties and improve training and access to Wireless Emergency Alerts. The protocol is in draft form now, reports Government Technology.

Butte County sheriff’s officials declined to answer questions about their decision not to issue WEA alerts. A spokeswoman said the office is still in “emergency response mode” and there’s been no time to analyze what actions were taken.

“What would have been nice to see in the Camp Fire [was a] WEA alert to let everyone know about the fire and to prepare accordingly,” said Thomas Cova, director of the Center for Natural & Technological Hazards at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City.

“No single notification system is 100 percent effective,” said Butte County sheriff’s office spokeswoman Megan McMann. “That is made more difficult with how rapid this fire was moving. When this emergency is over, we will be able to put our attention toward this.”  

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November 26, 2018               

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