Bay Area wildfires highlight flaws in emergency alert systems after some residents wrongly receive evacuation orders

A Santa Rosa resident says she received an emergency evacuation alert, but the fire was in Lake County -- 40 miles away.

Kate Larsen Image
ByKate Larsen KGO logo
Friday, August 28, 2020
Bay Area fires highlight flaws in emergency alert systems
The fires burning in the Bay Area have magnified new and existing problems with emergency alert and communication systems.

SONOMA COUNTY, Calif. (KGO) -- The fires burning in the Bay Area have magnified new and existing problems with emergency alert and communication systems.

After so much loss of life and property during the 2017 North Bay Fires, Sonoma County started working to improve their emergency communication system. But last week, when the LNU Complex Fires erupted, new issues emerged.

INTERACTIVE MAP: Track wildfires across Bay Area, other parts of CA

"I was at home. I received an alert, it was an evacuation order," said Sonoma County communications manager Carly Cabrera.

But Cabrera lives in Santa Rosa and her neighborhood was not under fire threat.

The alert was for Lake County - about 40 miles away.

"I know that the alert and warning system is not perfect. There are many things that can go into alert and warnings failing, such as power lines going down, power going out, cell towers being burned down," said Cabrera.

VIDEO: Man arrested for stealing firefighter's wallet, draining bank account, Santa Cruz authorities say

Santa Cruz County Sheriff Jim Hart announced Thursday that a man has been arrested for the theft of a firefighter's wallet.

Sonoma County Director of Emergency Management, Chris Godley, says they sent out 40 alerts in a two-day period last week.

When asked how he thought communications went last week compared to 2017, he said, "Better but not perfect, by a long shot."

"How do people receive these alerts hours after we send them out? There's a real latency in getting these messages delivered," he said, explaining another issue Sonoma County experienced.

"We think sometimes it's because people drive back into the area and they get the alert late, or they turn on their phone."

Godley says part of the problem is that the alert system is built and maintained by wireless broadband companies, but primarily used by the government.

"There's no financial incentive to refine and develop the technologies."

LIVE: Track air quality levels impacted by smoke from San Francisco Bay Area wildfires

In Napa County, EOC staff wanted to send out an Amber Alert-style warning about the fires last week, but they detected an error in the private vendor's coding. So instead, they sent out a Nixle alert, which potentially reaches fewer people because it's an "opt in" system.

Napa County spokeswoman Janet Upton told ABC7 News that the county alerted the vendor, Everbridge, about the problem, and the company is now working on a nationwide solution.

State Senator Bill Dodd of Napa thinks people should automatically be signed up for alerts instead of having to "opt in" or sign up.

PHOTOS: New images show scope of wildfires' devastation, as major complexes ravage state

1 of 10
Ventura County Air Unit Copter 7 captures an early morning image of the ring of fire at Solimar Beach.

"People say 'oh we can't do that because of privacy concerns.' Well I'm sorry, I think we should take the risk," said Dodd.

Dodd also co-authored a bill that would require 72-hour battery backup on cell sites, but he says, "The telecommunications industry has such a stronghold in Sacramento, they were able to get that bill held."

In the future, Godley says he'd like emergency agencies to be able to break into streaming videos to send alerts.

More low-tech solutions include siren systems and NOAA weather radios.