Emergency alert systems, meant to inform vulnerable residents of a range of threats, were tested over previous weeks as wildfires raged through San Mateo and Santa Cruz counties in often technically disconnected communities. 

“The high level answer to alerting is it’s a very inconsistent, fragmented system because it’s a national platform that we’re a part of,” said Cal Fire Deputy Fire Chief Jonathan Cox, who oversees fire operations at the San Mateo County division. 

Cox, alongside County Manager Mike Callagy and Supervisor Don Horsley, addressed wildfire concerns during a virtual briefing Wednesday, which drew about 77 participants. In response to questions regarding unreceived text message alerts warning residents of evacuations, Cox said warnings went out on schedule by both Cal Fire and the county Sheriff’s Office but noted the system has imperfections. 

“By no means is alerting perfect. It’s never been perfect. It’s a nationwide problem but I can confirm with everybody that we did, early on in all the evacuations, work with OES and the alerting folks at the sheriff’s department and we do have alerts timelined that did go out in a variety of methods,” said Cox. 

Jeff Norris, an emergency services coordinator with the San Mateo County Sheriff’s Office of Emergency Services, said that while alert systems like the federal Wireless Emergency Alerts system, the county’s SMC Alert and FEMA’s Integrated Public Alert & Warning System, aren’t perfect, errors within the systems are “phenomenally rare.” 

“[We feel] Great concern. We take all these reports very seriously,” said Norris. “We look at why someone might not receive a message or why they received a message not intended for them. We have a good relationship with our representative at FEMA, and we contact them any time we find out about a message that goes out to the wrong area or doesn’t go out correctly.”

During a massive crisis, such as the wildfires, county emergency response teams have access to WEA which can grant targeted access to wireless devices, said Norris. Wireless service providers volunteer to participate in the program but some devices may not be compatible with the alerts or out of service range. Providers are required to inform customers if WEA alerts are not covered. 

Norris also said the agency does public outreach to find potential subscriber issues and will assist residents with opting into the SMC Alerts system. Often WEA alerts will not reach those who have opted out of the services through the settings on their cellphones. Alerts from emergency services can also be missed if residents live in areas without coverage such as deep within canyons or wooded areas. 

SMC Alerts can send notifications through email, texts and phone calls, but the system works on an opt-in basis and currently only has 98,778 of 700,000 county residents voluntarily enrolled, said Norris. 

“Many times over I tell people the way you’re going to get to the best most detailed information is to subscribe to your county alert system. That may mean subscribing to more than one system, if you’re working in one county but live in another,” said Norris. 

During the briefing, Horsley noted officials needed to fix the system which left some residents unalerted and forced to rely on neighborhood word of mouth. He also expressed interest in placing pressure on wireless service providers to expand fiber optic equipment into disconnected areas of the county, largely affected by the wildfires. 

“It would make some of our systems like SMC alerts … much more valuable and of course people would have much more access to the internet which I think in the 21st century you just really need it. Everybody needs it. Farmers need it. School kids need it. … So we’re going to try to get some of these corporations to take responsibility,” said Horsley. 

Referencing the historic CZU Lightning Complex fires, which has burned roughly 86,500 acres of land at 91% containment, Callagy said the crisis underscores the importance of residents to opt into the county’s alert service. 

“Everyone in the county should be signed up for SMC Alert but at the very least everybody on the coast should be signed up for SMC Alert,” said Callagy during the briefing Wednesday. 

Supervisor David Canepa, a member of the Emergency Services Council, has advocated for creating a system in which residents would have to opt out of the alerts but acknowledged doing so would be highly complex and would require mutual cooperation with the state. 

“We need to do this but I understand that as easy as we say it is to get done, it’s a statewide issue and would take a lot of resources,” said Canepa. “The immediacy and urgency in making this happen is more important than ever.” 

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