New Report Highlights Strengths and Weaknesses of Emergency Alert and Warning Systems in Sonoma County

Sonoma County has completed a first of its kind test of its emergency alert and warning mechanisms in the wake of wildfires that destroyed more than 5,000 structures and killed dozens of people nearly one year ago.

The exercise was carried out by the Sonoma County Division of Emergency Management with help from local police agencies and the public on September 10 and 12. The goal was to identify specific strengths and weaknesses of each available tool —SoCoAlert, the federal Wireless Emergency Alert (WEA), and the Emergency Alert System (EAS) — to improve efficacy of the emergency alert system in the future. Findings were based on public survey results from thousands of participants.

One of the main discoveries involved inherent weaknesses in the federal WEA which need to be addressed. Among other things, the survey results showed that the two main mobile carriers in the area, AT&T and Verizon, have distinct methods and algorithms for distributing WEAs which causes significant issues for alert delivery.

“This exercise verified the need for improvement of the federal WEA system capabilities as it relates to conditions on the ground in Sonoma County,” according to the after action report’s conclusion. “The exercise findings indicate that significant challenges remain regarding the effective use of the federal warning systems, including WEA and EAS. These challenges include incomplete and inconsistent alerting across telecommunication providers, significant bleed over when targeting specific geographic locations, and the performance of the technology across various wireless devices. These shortcomings significantly conflict with the public’s expectations for service. Local government emergency managers will have to continue to take into account these shortcomings in developing and conducting alert and warning efforts. It is critical that local governments, Cal OES, FEMA, and the FCC engage telecommunications providers to continue to improve the reliability and effectiveness of these systems.”

As a result of the tests’ publicity, the number of subscribers to SoCoAlert increased 38%. There were 36,314 registered phone numbers as of September 3. By September 25, that number had swelled to 50,167.

A copy of Sonoma County’s report on the alert and warning exercise can be viewed on the Sonoma County website. Click here to a read the county’s press release.