Emergency test results a mixed bag
Sonoma County’s testing of alert and warning systems in September is a good news, not-so-good news story.
Part of the good news is that, thanks to publicity surrounding the testing, the county’s own emergency alert system, SoCoAlert, saw a significant increase in people signing up for the free service.
In early September, SoCoAlert had 36,314 subscribers. In late September, almost two weeks after the testing, there were 50,167, an increase of 38 percent. People signed up for SoCoAlert can receive emergency messages by phone, text, and email (go to www.SoCoAlert.com to sign up).
On Sept. 10, the county sent out a test to all SoCoAlert subscribers, as well as making a call to all the land lines in the county (over 290,000), informing them of an upcoming test of the federal emergency testing systems in two days.
The not-so-good news is the spotty results of that Sept. 12 activation of the federal Wireless Emergency Alert (WEA) system, a test which targeted five different geographic areas to represent different threat hazards, topography, and demographics. The Kenwood/Glen Ellen area was one of the areas where emergency test texts went out, selected due the proximity of homes to wildland fire risk.
Other WEA tested areas were Guerneville, Healdsburg, Penngrove and Roseland.
Texts were sent out in both English and Spanish.
Following the WEA, the federal Emergency Alert System (EAS) was activated, sending a test message to participating local radio and television stations.
Anecdotal evidence right after the wireless test indicated that some in geographically targeted wireless test areas successfully received the text, while others did not, often depending on the cell carrier.
A county report on the testing efforts released in early October found that the two most common mobile phone carriers in Sonoma County, AT&T and Verizon, have different methods, policies and algorithms for distributing wireless emergency alerts.
The report said that Verizon told the county that they require a cell phone to be within the boundaries of the alert area in order to broadcast the alert. AT&T had a large “bleed over,” stated the report, where the message also went outside the targeted area. For example when the test message went out to the Kenwood/Glen Ellen area, it was also received in other parts of Sonoma Valley as well as in Rohnert Park.
According to the report, “The differences in how the telecommunications providers distribute WEA messages causes significant issues for alert and warning officials… Inconsistent policies amongst telecommunications providers for issuing alerts is challenging for emergency management officials to target specific areas with confidence.”
To provide feedback, a link to an online survey was included in the WEA alert, as well as available online to those who didn’t receive one. There were 3,678 responses.
Overall, county emergency officials said the testing has helped identify the specific strengths and weaknesses of the alert systems, which will help them come up with a comprehensive improvement plan, which is now being developed.
“The focus of the test was on technology, but in reality, that’s just one part of the toolkit, and we learned it’s not 100 percent reliable,” said Chairman of the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors James Gore. “This exercise should be a call to all Sonoma County residents to talk to your neighbors, build a kit, and know your evacuation plan.”
To review the report, go to sonomacounty.ca.gov/FES/Emergency-Alert-Testing/.
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