SANTA ROSA (KPIX 5) — A revamped emergency alert system that grew out of last year’s wine country wildfires was tested in Sonoma County Monday.
One of fire survivors’ biggest complaints was the lack of communication from officials in the face of a firestorm.
“It’s absolutely necessary,” said Michael Williams, who lost his home in Tubbs fire almost a year ago. “Maybe we could have gotten some things out of our house if we had one and maybe there’s people’s lives that could have been saved if we had one.”
Several of Williams’ neighbors also lost their lives in the Tubbs Fire, and he says an emergency alert could have made a difference.
“There wasn’t one; a phone call, or anything. And for that matter, the cops didn’t even come into the neighborhood and say over their PA to evacuate.
The county now has updated its emergency notification system to use a combination of calls, texts and cellphone alerts.
Supervisor James Gore said Monday was the first trial run. “This is about establishing confidence, this is about testing a system, this is about getting out there and getting ahead of what’s next,” said Gore.
At the Sonoma County Emergency Operation center, officials sent a test phone call to more than 300,000 phones Monday evening to in a dry run for the emergency alert system throughout Sonoma County.
Santa Rosa resident Tom Stewart said an emergency alert 11 months ago when a massive wildfire was ravaging his Coffey Park neighborhood would have been very helpful.
“You got to remember, the fire was moving fast,” said Stewart. “So any time at all would have got us moving sooner.”
He now lives in an RV in Coffey Park, just a few yards from where his house burned to the ground.
“I wouldn’t have waited as long as I did and ended up with the shirt and clothes that I had on at the time,” explained Stewart.
Stewart’s phone rang at 6:15 p.m., but his neighbor, Mahrya Mirante, never got the call.
“Like any new system, there’s going to be flaws. And hopefully they work them out before it needs to be used,” said Mirante.
On Wednesday, the county will issue wireless emergency alerts and send texts out to five different geo-locations in the county, which can all be activated independently depending on the need.
The alerts come with a link to a survey, so the county can identify where gaps are in the system.
But when it comes to being safe, Gore says it’s not just up to county.
“The test is one thing, but let’s be real,” said Gore. “If people aren’t prepared with a “go” bag, if they don’t know that red flag warnings truly are our equivalent of hurricane warnings for fire, if they don’t get ahead of it and take the personal responsibility needed, then we’re not going to get anywhere.”
Among the survey questions for the Wednesday text alert test is “Did you receive this on your cellphone and who is your carrier?” The reason is that carriers are not required by law to push these alerts through and the survey will help system administrators figure out which carriers are sending the texts.