Contra Costa County emergency alert system endangers residents and emergency responders

RICHMOND — A brand new ominous Civil Grand Jury Report found Contra Costa County's municipal warning system inadequate, claiming that the voluntary opt-in network may fail to quickly and accurately notify as much as 70% of residents within the event of a wildfire, earthquake, or other major disaster.

Across the United States, alerts are sent in the shape of quite a lot of text messages, phone alerts, calls, social media posts, and other media broadcasts—vital tools for informing people about wildfires, earthquakes, floods, and other life-threatening disasters.

But these warnings often cannot fully contain the consequences of devastation, because the worst forest fire within the United States in a century recently demonstrated. swept through Maui last Augustas a result of slow response times from emergency responders, disruptions in internal communications, limited internal communications, non-functioning cell towers, and an overloaded operations center.

One of the largest concerns of the Civil Court is the reliance on a single on-call sheriff's office officer to reply to alarms and connect with the alert system network. Except for alarms related to refineries and chemical plants, Contra Costa County is the one county within the Bay Area that doesn’t train dispatchers to observe and activate alarms during emergencies, in keeping with a 2018 survey.

In addition, the report found that no independent, comprehensive risk evaluation of the present warning system has been conducted for the reason that county took over operations in 2001.

“Contra Costa County should not wait to identify risks when part of its warning system fails in an actual emergency,” the report says. “The success of any given warning system depends to a large extent on the redundancies built into the system to ensure that warnings reach as many people as possible.”

The June 3 report confirmed several concerns that had been raised for years without success. Among them was Richmond City Council member Soheila Bana, who founded the West Contra Costa Fire Safe Council in 2022 and wrote a letter to the grand jury last 12 months after repeatedly trying in vain to contact the Board of Supervisors, Sheriff's Office and other staff to take motion on projects which will have previously been deemed too expensive, unnecessary or not definitely worth the effort.

“I think we need to be more active than we have been so far – and make sure that the recommendations are implemented as intended,” Bana said on Tuesday. “I don't know why no one has paid attention to this so far, but it is obvious that (the existing municipal warning system) is not working as it should, or not optimally.”

Officials with the Contra Costa County Sheriff's Office didn’t immediately reply to a request for comment.

According to spokeswoman Kristi Jourdan, “Contra Costa County does not comment on grand jury reports until the Board of Supervisors has reviewed the document and had an opportunity to respond.”

But time is running out and the specter of disaster is looming – especially in a region stuffed with oil refineries, densely populated urban areas, vast open spaces with high potential for danger, fault lines and a network of pipelines for transporting hazardous materials.

In the case of disasters corresponding to fast-spreading wildfires, emergency experts advocate for warning messages to be written and sent to the general public inside 20 minutes, in keeping with the June 3 grand jury report, while other drills emphasize a 10-minute response time – an urgency that “can mean the difference between life and death,” in keeping with the report.

Failure to warn has killed or injured many people in California and across the country. Delayed notification contributed to the deaths of 85 people when the Camp Fire ravaged the town of Paradise in 2018. A series of fires in Wine Country in 2017 also killed 44 people.

The warnings also got here too late for a whole bunch of residents, who needed to be rescued after Coyote Creek overflowed its banks in February 2017 consequently of severe river storms. 14,000 people needed to be evacuated and the damage was estimated at $100 million.

Bana hopes the report will force local officials to take their concerns concerning the current CWS system more seriously, especially after town of Richmond conducted two evacuation drills in 2022 and 2023 that exposed half of the participants either received no warnings or weren’t notified until hours after the drill was accomplished. According to the grand jury report, the county didn’t review, query or investigate these issues.

Because the chance of multiple system failures continues to exist in Contra Costa County, the grand jury really useful that county agencies robotically enroll all county residents and businesses within the county's Community Warning System (CWS), deploy long-range acoustic devices that may transmit audible messages up to at least one mile, train sheriff's office dispatchers in operating the CWS, and certify first responder training in any respect local agencies.

In addition, the report calls on the county to ascertain an advisory board of county warning system and emergency response experts to guide the design and operation of the CWS and to commission a third-party risk evaluation of the CWS processes, procedures, hardware and software.

The grand jury required that every of the eight recommendations be implemented by 2025 and suggested that county officials use funds from Measure X – a countywide, 20-year, half-cent emergency response sales tax that voters approved in 2020 – to ascertain an opt-out alert system, acoustic studies for LRAD deployment, mobile apps for evacuation information and risk analyses of the present CWS.

In the meantime, Bana said he hopes Contra Costa County officials will take the time to work with local city and advocacy groups who’ve already begun researching the present risks and issues facing their communities.

“We've raised all of these issues before, but the response from the sheriff's office was, 'Everything is working fine, as it should,'” Bana said. “We don't have to go to the grand jury to make them aware that something needs to be fixed.”

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