(TNS) – As fires that would prove devastating burned across the North Bay late Sunday, Sonoma County considered sending a mass alert to cell phones in the region to warn of the rapidly spreading flames. But county officials decided against it, worried that doing so might create widespread panic and hinder the ability of first responders to combat the blazes.
It’s unclear how much that decision might have affected area residents’ responses to the deadly wildfires, particularly since many cell phone towers were destroyed in the blaze, making such messages undeliverable. But it adds to concerns that some in the fires’ paths were not alerted about the danger, leaving them little time to flee.
As of Wednesday evening, 13 people were confirmed dead in the Sonoma County fires, and officials expected the total to rise.
In the early hours of the blaze, officials at the Sonoma County Fire and Emergency Services Department discussed sending something similar to an Amber Alert to cell phones in the area, but chose not to since it would have gone to tens of thousands of people not in immediate danger.
The type of warning, called a Wireless Emergency Alert, can only target phones in large geographic areas, according to Sonoma County Fire and Emergency Services Coordinator Zachary Hamill, who made the decision not to send the wireless alert together with the county’s emergency manager, Christopher Helgren.
“If I had done the Wireless Emergency Alert I would have been notifying Petaluma, Cotati, Rohnert Park, Sebastopol, Sonoma — all of the cities and unincorporated areas in the county,” Hamill said. “And I didn’t need to do that, I needed to focus on who specifically needed” help. Jennifer Larocque, a spokeswoman for Sonoma County, said that sending such a widespread warning could have made it hard for first responders to combat the fire and help those in need.
“Providing mass information to people not affected could have caused mass traffic backups, which could have impacted emergency service providers and delayed emergency response,” Larocque said.
The Sonoma County Fire and Emergency Services Department is one of dozens of California agencies that can send Wireless Emergency Alerts, according to the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which administers the service. All major cell phone carriers have the technology, and everyone targeted by the alerts receives them unless they have actively opted not to get them.
Use of the alerts — in which only 90 characters can be transmitted — has seen mixed success in California when used for wildfire warnings.
Although there have been few instances of the alerts being deployed in situations similar to the Wine Country fires, on at least one occasion the technology seemed to create more confusion than help. In June, a swath of Southern California was ordered to “evacuate now” as crews battled a fire in Riverside County. Neighboring police and fire departments took to social media to explain the order did not apply to their areas.