Why don’t we beef up California’s alert system?

Close up of a young woman's hand typing text message on her smartphone. African young woman is typing on touch screen mobile phone.
During the Camp Fire, Californians learned at their peril that 20th century emergency communications are no longer enough. Image via iStock

The idea: Alerting the public can be the difference between life and death. But too often, emergency notifications come too late. During the 2019 Camp Fire, a large number of residents didn’t receive an alert or warning. At the time, the most effective system came from neighbors knocking on doors and word of mouth. California has to do better. With 85 lives lost, that blaze is now the state’s deadliest.  

The pros: For the first time, the state has issued basic guidelines for when and how to issue public alerts, suggestions for what information to include in a message, and where to distribute those warnings. The 83-page report released in March by the Governor’s Office of Emergency Services recommends alerting communities through as many platforms as possible, from wireless emergency alerts, traditional landlines and TV and radio to door-to-door notification, loudspeakers and sirens.  Cal Fire also has an alert app that lets users receive customized texts and push notifications about wildfires reported within a chosen ZIP code or 30 miles of a phone’s location. State officials now say “all of the above” is probably the best way to keep the public informed. 

The cons: “All of the above” is still pretty tech heavy, and recent fires and blackouts have shown that cell phones can be rendered useless in a worst-case scenario. Tech access isn’t equal in all parts of California. While most of the 58 counties have access to a new federal Wireless Emergency Alert system, 16 counties are not signed up. And despite those warning guidelines from CalOES, the state is still working on uniform terms so various state and local government agencies understand each other in an emergency.

The odds:  Six in 10, at least in the short term. Progress is being made but emergency communications still need work.