California wildfire survivors fear emergency alert errors could cost human lives

Posted at 6:46 PM, Sep 30, 2020

As new wildfires force tens of thousands of people out of their homes, reports are emerging of flaws in emergency alert systems throughout the west.

"Where I think the false sense of security was, if something really bad is going to happen, we'll get alerted well beforehand," said Vacaville resident, Will Carlson.

Carlson and several of his neighbors say they received no warnings as the Hennessey Fire inched closer to their homes. At around midnight, Carlson saw the flames moving quickly down a hill in the distance.

Carlson was one of the last to leave, working frantically to help save animals on the property.

"What I remember is this sinking feeling in my stomach, and this helplessness that this barn is going to go up in flames, and the horses will be burned alive," said Carlson.

After making it out safely, Carlson was left wondering how this could have happened.

"Every neighbor that we talked to it was the same story, we knew there was a fire in the area, we thought that we would get alerted, and nothing was said to us," said Carlson.

Le'Ron Cummings, public information officer for the Solano County Sheriff's Office, says alerts went out to these areas. However, they cannot guarantee the targeted population will get the message if cell service, internet, or landline signals are impacted. He says it was determined that cellular services and power were affected by the fire.

Solano County uses the Everbridge platform to alert residents via the AlertSolano program, delivering Amber Alert-style messages. Cummings says during an evacuation, the Solano County Sheriff's Office and allied law agencies do door-to-door notifications in addition to AlertSolano messaging. The Sheriff's office also uses the High-Low Siren system familiar in Europe to advise residents to evacuate immediately.

Carlson says he is frustrated with the response because he believes he had full cellular service throughout the night, texting and posting to social media as he evacuated.

"So I think that's where the frustration came in from that night. How many animals could have been saved? Could there have been less loss of life? And could structures have been defended better if we had more warning?" said Carlson.

Carlson says two people in his neighborhood died in the fire; however, county officials say they have no reason to believe the alert system was associated with fire-related deaths.

Napa County also experienced some kinks with its alert system, when a coding error prevented an alert from going out. Emergency officials say it was an error on the part of its vendor and that the message was not urgent. Staff realized the problem, and they were able to use a different platform to send out the alert.

"It happens over and over again," said Art Botterell, who is now retired from the State of California's Office of Emergency Services.

Botterell led the effort to develop the Common Alerting Protocol, which he says led to the creation of the FEMA Integrated Public Warning System and some products from the National Weather Service.

"We've got a pretty good penetration of cellphones, sirens, and telephone dialer systems, that's not usually what breaks down. What usually breaks down is that alert is not sent in time or not sent at all," said Botterell.

He says during a 2017 wildfire in Sonoma County, that would prove deadly and destructive, officials failed to send an alert, fearing it would cause panic and clog roadways.

Botterell says another reason alerts are often not sent is because officials believe they don't have enough information.

"It is fair to say that in a lot of cases, we have not given our public safety people the tools to issue public safety warnings effectively," said Botterell.

Botterell says more training is needed and believes state and federal governments should provide more guidance to ensure effective responses.

With the vulnerabilities in cellular towers and alert systems as a whole, Botterell says counties must utilize several tools to try and reach everyone.

"We've got a lot of technology. Now we need to get good at using it."