Sonoma County emergency officials tested their wireless emergency alert system on Wednesday to learn how it will perform during a real disaster.
The test comes after two incidents earlier this summer where some residents did not receive a cell phone alert during an emergency evacuation.
ALERTS PUT TO THE TEST
At 10 a.m., the Sonoma County Sheriff's Office activated the first of five wireless emergency alerts (WEA), sending a loud tone and text to five different parts of Sonoma County. The areas tested were Healdsburg, Guerneville, Roseland, Glen Ellen/Kenwood and Penngrove.
Wednesday’s test reached an estimated 20,000 cell phones and marked the first time anyone has tested the WEA system on the West Coast. Residents who received the alert were asked to fill out a survey so county staff could track exactly where the alerts landed and where there are gaps.
NBC Bay Area brought six cell phones on three different carriers to Roseland and observed the alerts. Five cell phones received the notifications in both Spanish and English, while one phone did not.
Sonoma County Supervisor James Gore said the county received numerous reports from residents and staffers throughout the morning that some of the target alerts missed the mark.
Particularly in Guerneville, a tourist hot spot that is also prone to dangerous flooding, supervisor Linda Hopkins said anecdotal reports were that no one received an alert when the test was activated.
“It shows you why people haven’t been using these systems because they are not 100% bullet proof,” Gore said.
“We’re hearing different stories that ‘[people] didn’t get an alert, nobody in my entire community did when you Geo targeted me.’”
In June, Sonoma County issued a wireless emergency alert in response to a three-alarm fire near Schellville. An informal survey discovered that AT&T users received the alert while Verizon customers did not.
A spokesperson for Verizon told NBC Bay Area that their users did not receive a message because government officials may not have properly targeted the company’s cell phone. “This would apply to any carrier,” a Verizon spokesperson said.
NORTH BAY FIRES
Sonoma County faced heavy criticism during the North Bay Fires for choosing not to issue a WEA fearing it would cause a massive traffic jam.
Interim Emergency Manager Chris Godley told NBC Bay Area last month that the county has since trained more 30 staffers how to activate an alert.
But as Wednesday's test revealed, the alerts still failed to reach certain regions, while spilling over into unintended parts of the county, leaving emergency managers with a better picture of what still needs work.
The county will continue to collect survey results in the coming days and present their findings to service providers and the FCC with the hope that they will use this information to improve the system nationwide.