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Local Officials Raise Doubts About State's New Disaster Alert Guidelines

Holly Quan
April 05, 2019 - 7:14 am

SAN FRANCISCO — The California Office of Emergency Services is releasing a set of revamped guidelines for how to alert the public of an impending disaster. The steps cover everything from building an updated list of residents to how to word an emergency alert.

An unprecedented deluge of wildfires and mudslides over the last two years exposed troubling shortfalls and inconsistencies among the many alert systems covering the state, said Caroline Thomas Jacobs, a chief in CalOES.

“We think it’s really important to continue moving forward and continue enhancing a statewide alert and warning system.”

There are many ways to be able to contact the public, and alert systems have not always been able to keep up, said Jacobs.

Related: New Marin County Emergency Radio System to Better Assist Firefighters

“We wanted to be able to think through how that changes how we can effectively alert and warn the public and gather those best practices," she said.

But there are concerns that the best solution for one community will not necessarily work for another.

During the Wine County wildfires of October 2017, officials did not send out a blanket warning to residents’ cellphones in order to avoid triggering a mass panic and clogging the roads, choosing to target specific neighborhoods instead.

In Paradise in Butte County, the Camp Fire descended too quickly to activate any warning.

Paradise City Councilman Mike Zuccolillo said warning systems must be tailored.

“Some communities have electronic billboards, some communities have other notification methods. If you’re in a larger city like Los Angeles for example, there are different avenues than we have in more rural places like Paradise," said Zuccolillo.

Incorporating other forms of communication also means that when cell networks go down, officials still have ways to notify people.

“Unfortunately all these techniques that we use now are reliant on cell phones and electricity and when those items fail — and usually in catastrophic events they do or they get overloaded — people forget that we have AM radios and they forget we have more common ways,” says Zuccolillo. “We're talking about more rudimentary alert systems like air raid horns, sirens — things that are a little more resistant to technology failures.”

State officials created the Emergency Management System after the Oakland Hills Fire of 1991 so that multiple agencies can work together to manage a disaster. Now, the focus is shifting to alerting the public before disasters hit.