After devastating fires, California plans emergency alert overhaul

After devastating fires, California plans emergency alert overhaul
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SACRAMENTO, Calif. — The massive firestorms that swept through California wine country last October have state legislators and disaster preparedness officials considering a major overhaul to emergency alert measures that could deliver more timely warnings to residents in harm’s way.

The fires, which claimed 44 lives and destroyed thousands of structures in four Northern California counties, laid bare the new reality of emergency preparedness in the digital age: Alert systems built during the 20th century have not kept up with 21st century technology.

“The disparity in alert and warning over the years has become really fractured. In the old days, you could use radio and television and you could get most of the people,” said Kelly Huston, the deputy director of California’s Office of Emergency Services. “Alert and warnings have become a lot more complex.”

While most Americans once consumed news — and warnings — from broadcast outlets, emergency alerts today must reach mobile devices, whether by text or through social media networks such as Twitter and Facebook, he said. 

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All of California’s 58 counties maintain some form of alert system, most built on the back of the federal Wireless Emergency Alert (WEA) system. But those are opt-in systems, requiring residents to sign up to receive warnings. New legislation authored by state Sen. Mike McGuire (D), who represents the region hardest hit by October’s fires, would set a statewide mandate for alert systems that would reach far more people.

“What we’ve seen in the North Bay, what we saw now recently with the mudslides that hit Santa Barbara County, is that we need a consistent set of protocols and standards for emergency alerts in all 58 counties,” McGuire said.

The new system would require local officials to send emergency alerts by cellphone and landline. State officials would later send alerts by radio, television and on state-controlled billboards on highways.

Multiple channels are necessary, McGuire said, because no single channel can guarantee access to a sufficient number of people. The fires swept through Lake, Mendocino, Napa and Sonoma counties so quickly on that hot and gusty October night they knocked out 72 cellphone towers in just the first eight hours.

“There were communities in the North Bay firestorm that didn’t have landline telephones, cable, internet or cell. The only thing they had was radio,” McGuire said.

California emergency management officials have already started using alert systems more aggressively. Last month, the state used the Wireless Emergency Alert system to deliver warnings about red-flag fire conditions to residents in seven Southern California counties, reaching 12 million devices.

Huston, the emergency management agency’s spokesman, said that although many of those users were not in harm’s way, the vast majority of the feedback his agency received was positive.

“It’s really hard to over-warn people because people get information from so many different sources,” he said. “People have a much greater expectation for getting alerts because they have much more accessibility through these digital networks.”

Still, the WEA system has its own drawbacks. It only allows emergency officials to send 90 characters of text, just a third the amount delivered in a tweet. It also does not allow photo, audio or video attachments, which emergency officials might use to send a map or deliver an audio warning.

McGuire’s legislation would provide funding for counties that do not already use the WEA system to purchase the necessary hardware and software.

California’s wine country will take years to recover from the deadly blazes. Residents whose homes or businesses were burned have submitted more than $9 billion in insurance claims so far, making it the state’s costliest wildfire by an order of magnitude.

Gov. Jerry Brown’s (D) proposed budget calls for $23.7 million to aid the cleanup and recovery. The state has already appropriated $25 million for local governments to beef up their fire-fighting abilities. In the last year, officials from the state's Department of Forestry and Fire Protection — Cal Fire — have added another 42 engines and crews around the state.

But McGuire and other state officials say they need to do more to combat the growing threat presented by wildfires. In years when California is parched by drought, high-elevation terrain covered by dry timber is susceptible to large conflagrations. In years when California gets enough rain, lowland grasses become potent fuels for fast-moving fires like those that swept through the Los Angeles area last month.

Climate change is exacerbating the challenge. Where Cal Fire — and fire officials in other states — once had a respite during the winter months, today fire season is almost a 12-month fight.

“We may ebb and flow from year to year, but the trend is upward,” Ken Pimlott, the chief of Cal Fire, told The Hill last year. “We’re turning from what had been a seasonal workforce to a year-round challenge.”