Emergency managers told the FCC that alerts can come close to their intended marks in dense urban areas where there are many towers. But in rural areas — wildfire terrain — so-called “boomer” towers cast warnings 20 miles outside the intended alert area.
Therefore, Santa Barbara stuffed so much geography into 90 characters its emergency evacuation orders looked like this:
“EVAC ORDER: Montecito S. of 192, N. of 101, W. of Toro Cyn, E. of Summit Rd & Country Club”
FEMA staff confirmed that cell carriers can choose which cell towers transmit the emergency warning, and it is up to them whether to even send a warning where the alert area is less than the cell tower coverage area. They are not required to make those policies public, robbing emergency managers of the chance to know in advance how their message will be carried and adjust accordingly.
“Right now if we draw a polygon [to target an alert], we have the potential to do more harm than good,” said Francisco Sanchez, emergency manager for Harris County, Texas, which includes Houston, and a primary champion of new FCC rules to improve wireless alerts.
Sanchez’s concerns are the same ones that Sonoma County’s Helgren raised: Mass alerts can make matters worse, especially in regions with limited routes in and out of a disaster area. Despite handling a disaster roster that included Hurricane Harvey this fall, Sanchez has issued a wireless alert only once — to tell county residents to not call 911 so that emergency calls could get through.
Warnings failed to reach many
When homes phones largely ran on copper wire land lines, emergency officials could use their 911 systems as a calling tree to deliver warnings. Private vendors have since stepped in to provide those services as well as the software and servers to call up cellphone owners.
The reach of those systems are limited by the phone lists they use — usually a combination of data bought from private marketers, telephone companies and numbers provided by voluntary subscribers.
Call records provided by Sonoma County show its efforts to warn residents of the deadly Tubbs fire were a success just 50% of the time — counting calls that went straight to answering machines. Numbers provided by residents subscribing to the county’s system had a 90% success rate. But those numbers made up only 15% of the dialing list. For the first warning of the Tubbs fire that meant only 213 numbers in an area with more than 13,000 residents, according to U.S. census data.
Meanwhile the thousands of numbers provided by the county’s vendor failed to be answered 62% of the time.
Shortly after the October fire siege, Sacramento County ran a test of its own emergency dialing system, provided by a different vendor. Data shared with The Times show Sacramento had similarly low call completion rates: Out of more than 34,000 calls, just over 2,000 were answered and 3,000 went to voicemail.
During the December fires, Santa Barbara’s direct dialing system’s call completion rates ranged between 15% and 55%.
Sacramento County pays to update its phone calling list every six months, county officials said, but to reduce error rates the county is considering buying new numbers every quarter. Sonoma County, Helgren said, had not updated its phone list since signing up for the private service in mid-2016.
Technological advances have further eroded the usefulness of other warning tools, managers said, including the emergency broadcast system that once was the backbone of the country’s civil alert muscle.
Television and radio stations, unlike cellphone carriers, are still required to participate in what is now called the Emergency Alert System — the service that begins a public warning with blaring tones. But the network was built to work with analog broadcasting, not the digital technology in use today.
As a result, when Santa Barbara tried to send an EAS broadcast this year to warn residents of flash floods, no message appeared on viewers’ screens. Something else happened. Their channels changed to C-SPAN.
County officials, cable providers and federal officials are still trying to figure out what happened, said Lewin, director of the Santa Barbara County Office of Emergency Management. In the meantime, even with wildfire forcing evacuations in his backyard, he will not use the system.
Lewin is looking for a technological fix to these gaps in his warning tools.
Hundreds of miles north in Mendocino County, where emergency managers have now discovered steep ridges block even the radio signals of National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration weather alerts, Sheriff Thomas Allman has settled on a different path.
He is buying air sirens.
Original Post here