Advertisement

As fires raged, county officials struggled with ‘confusing’ emergency alert systems

Firefighters battle flames in Vacaville
Firefighters battle flames in Vacaville.
(Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times)

In Napa County, a wildfire alert meant for cellphones would not connect because of a coding error.

In Sonoma County, similar alerts were sent to areas that required no evacuation and linked to an evacuation map that was a year old.

And in Solano County’s Vacaville, a city emergency operations employee missed a call to report to work because their phone was set to vibrate.

As fire crews battle a massive system of wildfires sparked by freak lightning storms, emergency officials are learning once again of the technological shortcomings of localized alert systems.

Advertisement

Despite heeding much of the emergency management guidance dispensed in the last year from Sacramento, counties dealing with the LNU Lightning Complex fire burning in Northern California have nonetheless encountered difficulties.

When the LNU Lightning Complex fire exploded over 36 hours between Tuesday and Wednesday last week, expanding from three burns across 12,000 acres to more than a half-dozen fires scorching more than 120,000 acres, some parts of the Bay Area were knocked back on their heels.

In Vacaville, where police, firefighters and Solano County sheriff’s deputies were evacuating people door to door in the middle of the night, someone had to go to the home of an Emergency Operations Center worker and wake him up because his cellphone had been set to vibrate, officials said.

In Napa County, emergency managers considered sending out a targeted Amber Alert-style message to cellphones telling residents to stay vigilant in case they needed to evacuate, but ultimately had to use other means that potentially reach fewer people.

Advertisement

“During the construction of the message content, it was discovered that the [alert] vendor’s software contained an error, so we instead issued our message utilizing the NIXLE alert tool,” said Janet Upton, a county spokeswoman.

And then there is Sonoma County, where, unlike three years ago when the previous emergency management director failed to alert some residents of a fire at all, the department’s current leader is concerned with having alerted too many.

“Using this system is like doing your taxes every time,” Chris Godley, Sonoma County’s director of emergency management, said of their alert software. “It’s a very challenging, technical process each time you do this, even though we’re relatively well-versed.”

Though the LNU Lightning Complex fire began as a pair of fires on Aug. 17, it didn’t really take off until the next day, when a vast heat wave stoked life into those and several other blazes that had been quietly smoldering after a weekend lightning storm.

Advertisement

“We didn’t expect the fire to come into our county the way it did,” said Solano County Sheriff’s Deputy Le’Ron Cummings.

Indeed, on the Vacaville Police Department Facebook page, the department told residents at 10:40 p.m. Aug. 18 that “there is currently no danger or evacuation orders to the residents of Vacaville. If for some reason this changes, we will work nonstop to notify our community via social media, phone or in person.”

Less than an hour later, evacuations were underway. The county blasted out messages through its Alert Solano program and posted them on social media and shared them with the media, but none of those approaches work when a person is tuned out and logged off.

So the city also sent out people like Vacaville firefighter Joe Scarrott and his crew, who went into the Vacaville foothills, darkened without power, to go door to door to tell residents to get out now.

Advertisement

“Both sides of the road are on fire, look up the road, it’s on fire, trees are on fire, everything is on fire,” Scarrott said. “It was a wild night.”

At one point, Scarrott tried a home on the edge of the wildland that would be among the fire’s first potential victims. No one answered the front door, but he had a feeling someone was there, so he opened the front door — this was the kind of neighborhood where people don’t lock their doors at night, he said.

An elderly woman was in the darkened entryway, startled by Scarrott and his headlamp. Scarrott told them there was a fire and they needed to go. The woman’s husband told Scarrott they were trying, but the power was out, and they couldn’t open their garage door to drive away.

The firefighter lifted it up and propped it open with a broomstick so they could drive out. Scarrott then moved on to the next house.

Advertisement

“The fire was nipping on backyards probably 20 minutes after we finished,” he said.

One person has died from the fire in Solano County, but the individual’s identity and the circumstances of the death were not available.

On the other side of the fire, Napa and Sonoma counties were dealing with kinks in their emergency software.

After a scathing report in 2018 faulted the response to disasters in the previous 12 months, in particular in Sonoma County, agencies in the region worked to improve how they would notify the public before the next wind-driven fire.

Advertisement

Napa, Sonoma and Solano counties, among others, introduced high-low sirens, modeled after the European siren sound, intended to alert the public of an imminent disaster. All three also boosted public enrollment in their subscription-based alert system.

But possibly the most noticeable change was the use of the federal Integrated Public Warning and Alert System (IPAWS) and its Amber Alert-style warning, called Wireless Emergency Alert. For years the technology was notoriously avoided by emergency managers because its messages were considered too short to be helpful while often reaching too far.

In Sonoma County in 2017, the county’s then-emergency management director declined to use the technology, despite its ability to reach virtually all cellphones in a given area, because he was unfamiliar with its recent improvements and didn’t trust it. The result left homeowners in the dark as wind-driven fires raced in, and two dozen people died.

But under its current leadership, during the current spate of monstrous fires, not only has Sonoma County blasted out messages on social media and in the news, it has also sent out 20 of those cellphone alerts, each targeted to a specific part of the community for evacuation, Godley said. The only problem is, two of them have had errors.

Advertisement

“One was set to call a larger area than intended. It’s over-warning, but it’s not a horrible mistake, given the nature of this fire,” Godley said.

The second erroneous message included a hyperlink to an evacuation map for last year’s Kincade fire, which was the largest evacuation ever in Sonoma County, rather than the current fire. The error was caused by coding in the website itself and was fixed after it was discovered, he said. In addition, when Godley used the technology last year during the Kincade fire, he discovered that the messages got backed up when cellphone towers lost power. When the power came back, the messages were finally sent, sometimes days after the evacuations had been ordered.

“It’s beyond confusing,” Godley said. “In Sonoma County, we’ve been under trauma for several years, and those calls can retrigger that trauma.”

Despite the system’s glitches, Sonoma County will continue to use it, Godley said. But making it more accurate would serve people in the long run. That’s why Napa County sought to use it too.

Advertisement

“It’s extremely helpful where you may not get tourists signed up for your local [program],” said Henry Wofford, Napa County sheriff’s spokesman. “Our whole purpose is to get it in their hands on their cellphones, in case they’re not at home, in case they’re in their backyard watering their lawns.”

But in Napa County’s case, where three people have been found dead related to the latest fires, it wasn’t an issue with the federal alert system that was causing problems, it was a coding error with their software vendor, Everbridge, officials said.

“We take every action necessary to ensure our customers receive reliable, uninterrupted service,” Everbridge told The Times in an email. “While we do not comment on particular incidents, when a California county contacted our support staff for assistance, we quickly worked with the county to ensure they were successful in sending out their alert.”

Apart from the cellphone alerts, the county was also using social and traditional media channels along with its subscription-based software to communicate with the public as state guidelines recommend, officials said.

Advertisement

The LNU Complex fire has burned 352,913 acres and is 27% contained.


Advertisement