Fires

In deadly fires, many residents never got emergency phone alerts. New law aims to fix that

The last two summers, thousands of Northern California residents had just minutes to escape raging wildfires that burned their neighborhoods to cinders. Many of them said they never received alerts from local authorities telling them to run for their lives.

On Friday, Gov. Jerry Brown signed legislation that mandates officials create statewide guidelines and training programs for local governments to ensure more people are notified during evacuations.

This summer, The Sacramento Bee found that during the deadly Carr Fire in Redding many residents never received cellphone alerts that local officials sent through cellphone towers. The Bee also reported similar problems during fires in Yuba County and the devastating Wine Country fires that burned thousands of homes.

The Bee’s investigations found that standards, training programs and capabilities to send the alerts vary greatly among local governments.

Senate Bill 833 by Sen. Mike McGuire, D-Healdsburg, requires the Office of Emergency Services, telecommunications carriers, broadcasters and local officials to develop guidelines for when and how to send emergency alerts. The legislation also requires standardized training and common terminology to minimize the confusion about what the alerts mean.

“Bottom line, this legislation will save lives,” McGuire said in a statement.

Brown on Friday also signed SB 821 by Sen. Hannah-Beth Jackson, D-Santa Barbara. The bill authorizes counties to automatically enroll residents into emergency notification systems. Jackson’s office said that in the Thomas Fire, which torched 281,893 acres in Southern California last year, fewer than 30 percent of residents had signed up for local emergency alerts.

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While multiple systems exist for local governments to warn people in urgent times — including broadcast TV, radio and internet messages — none is instantaneous and all are hit-or-miss in whom they reach and when they reach them. There are also few standardized protocols for how and when to use them in California, and training at the local level can be lacking.

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