California Officials Examine How To Improve Emergency Warnings After Devastating Fires

Dec 7, 2017

As the deadliest and most expensive fire season in state history continues into December, elected officials are examining ways to better alert the public during fires and other emergencies.

Starting in World War II, and continuing through the Cold War, a network of Civil Defense Air Raid sirens bolstered by radio and television’s Emergency Broadcast System were the chief ways the public would be alerted in an emergency. With the breakup of the Soviet Union and the expansions of technologies, like cable television, reverse 911, Wi-Fi, cellular phones and text messaging, new ways supplanted the old.

But all the modern trappings of our increasingly connected society can vanish, faster than you probably think.

When deadly fires surged through the North State and Mendocino and Napa counties earlier this year, the devastation often spread faster than warnings could reach those in danger.

At a joint legislative hearing held in Sacramento Monday, Mendocino County Sheriff Tom Allman said the Mendocino Lake Complex caused communications in some communities to go down for 72 hours.

“The city of Willits had no internet, no cell coverage, no copper line, no 911, for 72 hours, because, within three hours of our fire (starting), the most critical infrastructure we have in our county, a microwave tower, was taken out by the fire,” he said.

To reach the largest area possible and serve the most people, cellular towers are high up, especially in rural areas. That also creates vulnerabilities. State Senator Hannah Beth Jackson chaired Monday’s committee looking into ways to improve California’s emergency warning system.

“The towers are frequently located up in the hills — frequently that’s where the fires start,” she said. “When they burn down, the cell system is eviscerated, leaving us to some of the less technologically advanced, but perhaps more reliable systems.  This loss of capacity to warn the public of an emergency could in fact deprive residents of critical minutes to get to safety.”

A view of the Cascade Fire, which killed four and destoryed 144 homes in Yuba County in October. The fire's fast growth and power outages made notifying affected residents a challenge, officials say.
Credit Rebecca and Glenn Kyler

The problems aren’t only with cell phones. Scott Bryan is Emergency Operations Manager for Yuba County. With spotty to non-existent cell phone coverage in parts of the rural Sierra foothills, many residents rely on hard-wired telephones. The Cascade Fire that destroyed 144 homes and killed four people this October didn’t make a distinction.

Bryan said in some places, the fire severed phone service.

“Telephone wires actually going down, because of the fires burning poles or whatever and then people have phones today that won’t operate unless they have power,” he said.

Others, using so-called VOIP phones, which get phone service through an internet connection and are typically sold through cable companies, also lost service.

Bryan said only about 70 percent of Yuba County’s public alerts were received during the emergency.

With California threatened by annual fires, but also facing potential tsunamis, unpredictable earthquakes, flooding and mass shooting incidents officials are looking to improve reliability---but there’s no simple answer. Mark Ghilarducci directs the Governor’s Office of Emergency Services.

“Our society is moving to a wireless society,” he said. “People are getting rid of their land lines, they are getting rid of their regular phones and they’re only going to these. That means that the system that supports these, has to be redundant. And government does not have really any authority over that to speak of. To assure that that redundancy and resiliency is put in place to what we consider public safety standards. That is an issue.”  

For cell phone providers, there’s not a lot of profit in providing service to remote areas. Elected officials don’t really have much leverage.

“Public entities have the responsibility for pushing out the warning for public safety,” Bryan said. “And while I would say that the partners at the telecoms also believe in that, their ultimate mission is bottom line driven.”

But Robert Jystad, former president and CEO of the California Wireless Association, a group representing cell phone carriers, disagrees. He blamed unreliable service on local governments, though that may be more of an issue in urban areas.

“The industry is more than willing and is actively spending money on expanding its networks, building redundancy into its networks, utilizing fiber on a broad scale,” Jystad said. “But, it becomes difficult for us when we have jurisdictions that politicize the permitting and it gets caught up in city council politics, it gets caught up in planning commission politics, and it becomes very difficult for us to deploy.” 

As far as restoring warning sirens, that may prove difficult. Allman, the Mendocino Sheriff said the county had to purchase refurbished sirens for its new coastal tsunami alert system because he couldn’t find a manufacturer.

It is unclear what if anything will come from Monday’s hearing. Lawmakers said the impetus for making changes could dissipate before any action is taken. If there was one common thread---lawmakers acknowledge that because of California varying terrain and packed urban and sparsely populated rural areas, there’s simply no single answer.

To receive text alerts on a mobile phone, you must first sign up — and participation is far from universal. Butte County Sheriff Kory Honea said February’s spillway crisis in Oroville was a wake-up call, inspiring people to sign up for the county’s Code Red notification service.

“I think, for those who haven’t, a good percentage might be apathy, which is always the enemy, right? And, kind of a sense that, ‘Hey that can’t happen here,’ or ‘That won’t happen to me,’ and if you look at the people in Santa Rosa, I mean, those were neighborhoods,” Honea said. “In a populated area. In a city. I’m sure many, many people thought, ‘I don’t have to worry about forest fires or wildland fires coming through this neighborhood, right?’”

The bottom line: expect the unexpected.