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.
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.