As Fire Spread, Sonoma County Opted Not to Send Mass Alert

Tough questions are already being raised about local governments’ responses to a series of deadly fires that have killed at least 40 people and destroyed thousands of homes in Northern California. Chief among them: Why didn’t Sonoma County send out mass cell phone alerts to warn its residents of the rapidly spreading flames?

Sonoma County could have sent out an emergency mass-blast alert to every cellphone in the region Sunday night as the deadly Tubbs Fire grew but chose not to, saying the overkill alarm would have hampered emergency efforts.

County officials are defending their decision. But they are facing similar “when and how to use it” questions that arose in Santa Clara County after February floods along the Coyote River chased thousands from their San Jose homes with little or no warning.

Sonoma is one of dozens of jurisdictions in California that has the wireless emergency alert system at its fingertips. The prospect of using it was discussed but officials ultimately decided not to, fearing it would ping “every cellphone connected to a cell tower in Sonoma County,” causing potentially deadly traffic jams.

Sonoma County did utilize the SoCoAlert and Nixle systems, but those require residents to register for the alerts in advance. They also employed reverse 911 calls.

“I don’t know how effective that was,” said Sonoma County Sheriff Rob Giordano, the Sonoma County sheriff. “It’s going to take a long time until we understand that.”

What we do know is this: Lake County, which was the only county to utilize the mass wireless alert system, experienced no loss of life.

Read more at the Mercury News and the L.A. Times


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