2 Investigates: Why didn't officials sound mass wildfire alert?

- Response to raging wildfires in Sonoma County will be assessed and reviewed at the state and county level following complaints and criticism that residents were not given enough warning, or no warning at all.

Emergency managers only had a narrow window to alert those living in some neighborhoods that flames threatened their homes last Sunday night.

2 Investigates reviewed the emergency systems used including text messages, telephone calls, emails and social media posts and then questioned officials in Sonoma County.

“We were behind before we ever got started,” Santa Rosa Mayor Chris Coursey said. “Even if everything went perfectly, I’m not sure everyone would have gotten notification.”

The Sonoma County Sheriff’s Department activated its Nixle alert system, notifying those who signed up by text message of the fire danger. It also sent out reverse 9-1-1 robocalls to landlines to warn residents.

Despite advertising the Nixle system, only a small number of residents are subscribed to get the alerts.

“The problem we're having is the world has changed,” Sonoma County Sheriff Rob Giordano said. “When people all had hard lines, we called everybody in a geographic area easily but when people get rid of their hard lines, there's consequences for that."

Still, 2 Investigates found the Sonoma County Office of Emergency Management could have activated a wireless emergency siren-like alert, alarming, vibrating and lighting up any cell phone in a certain set geographical area. It is a system developed several years ago by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

In nearby Lake County, the officials chose to send that wireless emergency “code red” alert to anyone in the fire danger zone telling them to get out now.

“We wanted to reach those who didn’t subscribe to Nixle, people who are visiting or people who just don’t want to be bothered with everyday notifications,” Lake County Sheriff Brian Marin said.

Even though it is small in size, homes were quickly evacuated in Lake County and no deaths have been reported there.

In Sonoma County, the call was made not to send that wide-ranging cell alert to 500,000 people.

“I don’t know that that works here because of our geography, because of our population and our roads,” Sheriff Giordano said. “I would encourage them to sign up for SoCoAlert and Nixle.”

Sheriff Giordano said there was fear of causing panic, jamming up roadways and preventing first responders from doing their jobs if everyone in the area was notified.

Some living in Santa Rosa said they are signed up for Nixle or have a land line but never got a notification.

Mayor Coursey said the fire moved so quickly and nearly 80 cell phone towers and hundreds of lines were damaged preventing messages from being received.

“I’m sorry we didn’t do better,” he said.

Right now, officials are planning a review of the response to see if there are lessons that can be learned.

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