State Senator Hannah-Beth Jackson is leading a series of meetings with emergency managers in Sacramento to better understand emergency preparedness measures in Northern and Southern California.

Paul Wellman (file)

State Senator Hannah-Beth Jackson is leading a series of meetings with emergency managers in Sacramento to better understand emergency preparedness measures in Northern and Southern California.

State of California Reviews Reliability of Emergency Warning Systems

Senator Jackson Seeks Lessons Learned from Recent Large Fires

About the time the Thomas Fire ignited Monday evening, State Senator Hannah-Beth Jackson was concluding a fire response meeting in Sacramento convened with the emergency managers involved in the recent large fires in Northern and Southern California. Ironically, the power outages along the South Coast from the Thomas Fire underlined their comments that emergency warning systems rely on electricity to reach the public: When the power goes down, law enforcement must resort to pounding on doors and loudspeakers in the streets, which indeed was the case in Santa Paula and Ventura.

Among the numerous speakers, Cal Fire Chief Ken Pimlott counted the ways October’s tragic Northern California fires set records for fire behavior and wind speeds; he described the fire’s onset at Coffey Park as a “blowtorch.” By this past weekend, 44 people had died from the fires — 172 separate fires had broken out the weekend of October 8 in Northern California — more than 100,000 people had been displaced, and nearly 9,000 structures destroyed. Amid such a widespread need for public emergency warnings, the fact that the notification infrastructure was owned by private companies did occasionally run into the public need, said Mike Ghilarducci of the Governor’s Office of Emergency Services. A theme repeated at the hearing was that whether it was the klaxon sound of the Emergency Broadcasting System (now called the Emergency Alert System) or text messaging, Nixle or CodeRED alerts, or Reverse 9-1-1, if the power went out, so did the ability to send notifications.

By Paul Wellman

California Incident Team 3 Operation Branch Director Alex McBath and Operation Section Chief Patrick Russel work the Whittier Fire Sunday July 9, 2017

The problem becomes pronounced in rural areas, said officials from Lake, Napa, Yuba, and Mendocino counties. Battery-operated radios were the most reliable way for the public to get information, they said, and ham radio operators provided valuable services during the emergencies. For rural counties with deep valleys and high mountains in remote areas, line-of-sight issues with cell towers often made communications with residents complicated, they emphasized.

Sheriff Tom Allman of Mendocino made the point that during an emergency, not all the cellular companies stepped up to bridge gaps in coverage. “AT&T is the big dog on the porch,” he said. “And they don’t share. Its cell tower was just sitting there, and the vast majority of county residents are not AT&T customers.” He added that messages on copper phone lines, or landlines, are digitized, too; if service is lost, they become no better than cellular phones, he said.

Rural residents stated they wanted warning sirens on tall poles, though that conversation had been ongoing for more than 15 years, Yuba County’s Scott Bryan said. For his area, the CodeRED mass notification system worked well until the power went down. After that, the cell towers became overloaded, so there seemed to be no one-size-fits-all solution. Redundant systems, they agreed, were what was needed during emergencies.

The hearing, the first of two joint legislative committee meetings, was titled “Sounding the Alarm: Examining the Performance of Emergency Warning Systems in California During the 2017 Fire Season” and is viewable here.

To submit a comment on this article, email or visit our Facebook page. To submit information to a reporter, email

Be succinct, constructive, and relevant to the story. Leaving a comment means you agree to our Discussion Guidelines. We like civilized discourse. We don't like spam, lying, profanity, harassment or personal attacks.

comments powered by Disqus
event calendar sponsored by:

Greka Found Operating Open Waste Pit Without Permit

Asphalt operation in Santa Maria ordered by EPA to sample for possible toxic migration into nearby fields ...

Regional Control in Crosshairs in State Housing Crisis

Key reform would require "objective design review" standards.

Behrens Denied Access to Memo That Helped Demote Him

Judge says district still must provide more complete accounting of job-performance issues.

Are We Out of the Drought?

With the recent rains, Lake Cachuma is now almost 60 percent full.

Supervisor Peter Adam Not Running for Third Term

He instead announced his support of early candidate Bob Nelson.