Outdated emergency alert system bypassed during wildfires getting overhaul
Officials said the Wireless Emergency Alert system messages were too short, didn’t support web links and had the potential to be broadcast too widely
By Julie Johnson
The Press Democrat
SONOMA COUNTY, Calif. — Federal authorities knew technology used to broadcast official emergency warnings from cell towers was outdated years before deadly fires ignited last month in Sonoma County and throughout Northern California, forcing tens of thousands of people to flee for their lives, many with no warning.
Messages were too short, didn’t support web links and had the potential to be broadcast too widely, according to Federal Communication Commission members charged with regulating how cellphone companies issue government warnings. The commission in 2015 began a formal process to update the requirements and bring warning capabilities into step with technological advancements, but implementation was delayed by industry objections.
Sonoma County officials have cited those issues as factors in their controversial decision not to use the Amber Alert-type broadcasts to warn people about approaching fires that erupted Oct. 8 and ultimately burned across 174 square miles in the county, killing 23 people and destroying more than 5,100 homes.
Even with the program’s limitations, some residents have expressed outrage that county emergency services staff didn’t send Wireless Emergency Alerts, sidestepping a tool used by Lake County last month to warn Clearlake area residents threatened by flames.
“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. “We’d be dead. We received no alert either by email, or smartphone, or loudspeaker notices to evacuate. And we lost everything.”
The Wireless Emergency Alert messages go to most cellphones within a certain broadcast area, reaching even out-of-towners and overriding do-not-disturb settings with a distinct alert tone. The alerts look like text messages but they don’t use data and can be more efficient than automated phone calls or text messages, which go out in batches.
Now, the system is finally getting a long-awaited overhaul to catch up with advances in cellphone technology.
On Nov. 1, the FCC ordered cellphone companies to enable embedded links and allow government emergency messages to be longer, an increase from 90 to 360 characters.
The updates are significant improvements, said Neil Bregman, Santa Rosa’s emergency preparedness coordinator.
“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,” said Bregman, adding that Sonoma County emergency staff have access to the program and can send a message on behalf of a city.
Federal Communications Commission members praised the new rules. Had they been implemented before the Northern California wildfires or hurricanes in Texas, Florida and Puerto Rico, the system “could have saved life and property,” Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel said.
“We shouldn’t be caught short like this again. ... We should address every one of these outstanding issues now — before the next disaster compels us to do so,” Rosenworcel said in a statement released when the new rules were published Nov. 1.
The changes also create a new test feature available to local governments and add a public safety category to the type of messages that can be sent. Previously, the categories were limited to presidential alerts, imminent threats and Amber Alert messages for suspected child abduction cases.
Wireless Emergency Alerts were the only method available to Sonoma County officials that would have pushed notifications onto cellphones, regardless of whether the individual was local or had signed up for voluntary notification systems.
The night of Oct. 8, emergency officials sent evacuation and warning messages throughout the night, but they relied on landline telephones and programs like web-based Nixle and SoCo Alerts that required people to sign up in advance to get messages by email or cellphone.
For a county of a half-million people, few had.
Days after the fires started, Zachary Hamill, Sonoma County’s emergency services coordinator defended the decision to not use the Wireless Emergency Alert system because he said it would have been broadcast to the entire county, potentially clogging the roads with more people evacuating than necessary, according to an interview with The Press Democrat for an Oct. 13 story.
Hamill and other county emergency services officials have been tight-lipped since. Hamill and Emergency Services Manager Chris Helgren have not responded to repeated interview and information requests over the past two weeks.
Despite the acknowledged shortfalls with wireless alerts, officials with the Federal Emergency Management Agency and California’s Office of Emergency Services said most counties can send the messages to geographic areas smaller than a county, depending on the private software used.
Since 2013, the largest cellphone companies enabled what’s called geo-targeting to a specific area, and many of the private software programs that send out the messages allow users to draw a polygon on a map to show where messages should go.
“The wireless carriers have been targeting to small areas for years,” said a senior FEMA official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he hadn’t received authorization by press time to speak with the media. Companies including AT&T, Sprint, Verizon, T-Mobile and Metro PCS all allow geographically focused messages, although smaller companies may still be working on that functionality, he said.
That capability was used in Lake County the night of Oct. 8 as a wildfire bore down on the city of Clearlake and Clearlake Oaks. Lake County sheriff’s officials broadcast a warning about a wildfire near the Lakeshore Drive area to about 840 cellphones, Lt. Corey Paulich said.
No one was reported hurt or killed in that fire, which eventually burned 2,207 acres and destroyed nearly 140 homes.
Both Lake and Sonoma counties use CodeRED software, made by a Florida company called OnSolve, to send official warnings and other types of messages including Wireless Emergency Alert messages.
FEMA oversees the system’s use but relies on private developers to provide the software.
The Wireless Emergency Alert system “is an agreement between (cellphone) 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,” said Troy Harper, general manager for the public sector for OnSolve.
Most systems offer two geographic fields for messages: one for an entire county and the other allowing an administrator to draw a polygon shape on a map, the FEMA official said.
That’s how CodeRED works, said Harper. Local emergency staff can save these smaller geographic selections, such as a neighborhood prone to flooding or a government building with the potential to be targeted in an attack, for future use.
It’s up to the cellphone companies to send the geo-targeted messages, and local officials won’t necessarily know how precisely the messages will follow the map.
“It’s not pinpoint accuracy,” Harper said.
That is why 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.
Private message-sending services like Nixle and SoCo Alerts can offer more robust geographic targeting through landlines and to cellphones and emails of people who have signed up for the service and provide information like address and ZIP code.
But unlike Wireless Emergency Alert messages, which are transmitted immediately, these other systems dial numbers to send text messages and automated phone calls in batches — about 1,000 numbers at a time, according to Sonoma County’s staff report on its contract with OnSolve.
Those calls can bog down the system, slowing transmission, according to the FEMA official.
Copyright 2017 The Press Democrat