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Evacuation alerts become focus after devastating fires

VENTURA, CA - DECEMBER 07:  The Thomas Fire burns near a school bus on December 7, 2017 in Ventura, California. The fire has destroyed 439 structures and burned 115,000 acres.  (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)
Mario Tama/Getty Images
More fires are burning faster in California, prompting more evacuation orders. Here, the Thomas fire burns in Ventura County.

With more fires moving faster than ever before in California, authorities are issuing more evacuation orders earlier. And that’s placed a spotlight on emergency alert systems, which are controlled by local authorities.

In fact, hours before the Thomas Fire hit Ventura County last Monday, the head of the California Office of Emergency Services told state legislators that he wants to standardize how and when authorities issue evacuation orders. Pointing to the deadly October fires in Northern California, he said notifying people to get out of the way of fast-moving flames is more critical than ever.

"The events we’re seeing in California today are very complex, and the scale, scope and size are a tremendous challenge to us," state OES Director Mark Ghilarducci said.

Without offering details, he said Governor Brown plans to ask state lawmakers to provide more money to improve alert systems, which have evolved dramatically over the years.

They started in 1951 during the Cold War. The federal government controlled one system and sent messages over three broadcast networks – NBC, ABC, and CBS.

Today, local authorities control alert systems and a wide range of methods are used to reach people – from broadcast TV to texts to social media. The growing threat of fires demands California cities and counties issue alerts in a more uniform fashion, Ghilarducci said.

"We need to develop and implement standardized processes that really guide all of the users into a standardized practice," he told legislators. Ghilarducci stopped short of saying the state needs to take control and develop its own system.

He also noted alert systems are reliant on the infrastructure of private telecom companies – who’s primary mission is not public safety.

"While I would say that the partners at the telecoms also believe in that, their ultimate mission is bottom line driven," Ghilarducci said.

During October’s deadly fires, some cellphone towers burned and failed to issue warnings. Those towers need fortifying, said State Sen. Hannah Beth Jackson (D-Santa Barbara), who chairs the Joint Legislative Committee on Emergency Management.

"Should the state be investing more, should the private sector be called upon to do more – that’s one of the questions we should be asking," she said.

When landlines were more prevalent than cellphones, alert systems automatically reached people through reverse 911 calls.

Now, with cellphones the dominant means of communication, people usually need to sign up for phone or text alerts.

That’s why the chairman of Ventura County’s Board of Supervisors said he wants state money to publicize their VC-Alert system.

"That kind of funding could really help us to get more people receiving alerts," said Supervisor John Zaragoza.

National fire experts say it’s critical local and state authorities improve alert systems and make sure their messaging is clear as fires move faster and faster – especially in California.

"We have to make sure we communicate with residents that when the word goes out to evacuate, you need to evacuate right then and there and not wait," said U.S. Fire Administrator Keith Bryant.

While he has yet to say how much money he wants, Governor Brown is expected to ask for millions of dollars in new investment in alert systems. Senator Jackson predicted legislators would approve at least some new funding.

"I think they will," Jackson said. "This has been a rather profound fire season. And its not over yet."