Cheryl Irvine had dozed off on her couch just after midnight Monday, still in her evening gown, after hosting a graduation party for one of her eight children at her home in the Yuba County hamlet of Loma Rica.
She was soon roused from her slumber by the smell of smoke and the noise of traffic on the street. Those were the only warnings she received that a wildfire was bearing down on her home. She and her family managed to escape, and their home was spared.
Others weren’t as fortunate.
A series of raging midnight fires last week destroyed thousands of homes and left at least 41 people dead in Yuba, Sonoma, Napa and Mendocino counties. Those who escaped are now questioning why some people got emergency alerts on their phones, while many others got no warning at all.
County officials in the fire zones are offering a disconcerting mea culpa. Their emergency warning systems are severely limited – and in some ways getting worse.
Traditionally, counties have built their phone alert systems by collecting all households’ landline phone numbers from phone carriers and sending out mass alerts in emergencies.
But the number of people with landlines has dropped dramatically in the last decade. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 40 percent of U.S. households no longer have a landline, as more people rely only on cellphones.
County emergency officials say it’s harder for them to collect cellphone numbers. They often rely on voluntary sign-up systems that allow people with cellphones to register their numbers with the county that can be used to send out emergency alerts.
But county officials acknowledge they have not been able to get the word out well that people should sign up.
It created a situation Monday night where some people in fire-threatened neighborhoods got a call, and others, like cellphone-only user Cheryl Irvine of Loma Rica, didn’t.
“I do have friends who have a landline and they did receive an emergency notice via the telephone,” Irvine said. “But we didn’t have that.”
Emergency services officials say they plan to review what went wrong, as well as what worked. That will include an analysis of emergency alert protocols.
“There will be ‘after action’ reports done on these incidents by local emergency managers to determine what worked and what lessons were learned,” said Kelly Huston of the Governor’s Office of Emergency Services. “That always includes a look at alerts and warnings.”
Huston said it is each county’s responsibility to create and maintain emergency alert systems: “We generally recommend utilizing several methods or tools rather than relying on any one system.
“For example, the coastal counties use audible sirens on poles for tsunami alerts but may also have reverse 911 and radio/television stations. Rural jurisdictions may rely on door-to-door notifications. It all depends on what’s happening and where.”
In Sonoma County, officials alerted residents through targeted calls to landlines, as well as texts, calls and online messages to cellphone users who had previously signed up for alerts, according to the Santa Rosa Press Democrat. Some residents criticized Sonoma County officials for not using an alternative alert system, one managed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, that can send blanket messages to all phones, including landlines and cellphones.
Sonoma officials said the problem with that system – essentially the same as the Amber Alert system – is that it is broad-brush. It sends messages to everyone in the county, including those who are not in fire danger, causing some of them to clog roads.
“They would have reached many people not affected by the fire,” Sonoma spokeswoman Jennifer Larocque said, according to The Associated Press. “It would have delayed our response.”
Yuba County officials don’t yet have access to that federal system. County spokesman Russ Brown said Yuba applied for the service months ago, but its application process is pending. “We’re not sure how much a difference it would have made really.”
Yuba’s local notification system, called “CodeRED,” depends entirely on people signing up online for automated phone alerts.
So far, around 30,000 people have signed up out of the county’s 74,000 residents, Brown said.
The opt-in systems have one major benefit. They allow emergency officials to target alerts to smaller geographic areas. A month ago in Placer County, when a Lincoln man with dementia wandered out of his home and went missing, officials sent an alert in a one-mile radius.
“A lady got the message, walked outside, saw an elderly gentleman who looked confused,” Placer emergency services official John McEldowney said. “She called law enforcement, got him help within literally 15 or 20 minutes of the message going out.”
Emergency services officials in counties around Northern California, including the Sacramento area, say the point has been driven home: They need to get more cellphone users signed up to local alert systems.
Jonathan Kramer, a telecommunications lawyer in Los Angeles, said the problem counties face is that the law creating the reverse 911 alert system was written before cellphones became prevalent. It only requires phone companies to hand over customer landline phone numbers to emergency agencies. That leaves counties struggling to get the word out that they need cellphone owners to voluntarily sign up.
“It’s a huge safety hole that grows every single day as people shift from land lines to cellphones only,” said Kramer, principal attorney at the Telecom Law Firm in Los Angeles. “A reverse 911 (system) becomes less effective every day.”
Sacramento city officials say the number of cellphone owners opting in jumped considerably this past year when the area was hit by flood threats. But, as of last week, only 20,000 cellphone users had signed up in a city of 384,000 adults. The city also has, it believes, about 52,000 working land lines on its emergency call list.
Sacramento city and the counties of Sacramento, Placer and Yolo have jointly teamed since 2013 on an emergency alert system. Those agencies plan to send a test alert out on Thursday to see how well the system works, and as a way of catching people’s attention and getting them to sign up. System sign-ups for residents in Sacramento, Placer and Yolo counties, as well as the city of Sacramento, are online at Sacramento-Alert.org.
“We’re not hiding the fact, we have been vocal that our registration is pretty low,” said Stephen Cantelme, Sacramento County emergency services official. “We have been trying to do outreach. The only times we see significant increases is when we have an incident, like the floods.”
This week’s wildfires contrast dramatically with the Oroville Dam crisis in Butte County in February. Butte officials had several days to warn residents about the potential of a dam failure. Although the evacuation order late afternoon on a Sunday was a surprise – just hours after dam operators said the structure was safe – it didn’t catch residents completely unaware.
“Everybody knew there was something going on,” said Miranda Bowersox, spokeswoman for the Butte County Sheriff’s Department. “People knew there was a situation.”
The county’s CodeRED phone alert system, coupled with widespread news media and county social media alerts, led to an evacuation that evening that caused traffic jams, but overall “went about as well as could be expected,” she said.
In contrast, most of Monday’s fires appear to have ignited Sunday night around 10 p.m. after many people went to sleep, and flames sprinted into residential areas after midnight. Some cellphone owners turn their phones off at night, officials said, and others may sleep through the beeps and rings. Even if they left their phones on, this week’s fires knocked some cellphone towers out of commission, creating service blackout areas.
Given those shortcomings, McEldowney of Placer County said residents must take some responsibility for monitoring their own safety amid natural disasters.
“A couple of years ago, in the wake of a fire … we had a community meeting, and there was a resident who was upset because she didn’t get notified,” McEldowney said. “Some of her other neighbors got notified by a Placer alert.”
Even when emergency personnel are on the street with sirens blaring, though, some people freeze up and refuse to believe what is happening, he said.
“If you smell smoke, if you see fire, if the sheriff’s deputies are running up and down the street, telling people to go … if you see your neighbor leaving on the left, your neighbor leaving on the right, your neighbor across the street leaving, it’s time to go.”