How Mobile Emergency Alert Systems Work

YUBA COUNTY -- In the aftermath of the deadly Northern California wildfires, some are asking if more could have been done to warn people about the approaching flames.

It's a question the governor's Office of Emergency Services has received several times: What electronic warnings were sent out before the wildfires ravaged homes?

"Local authorities have the responsibility of pushing out messaging of evacuation orders. And they use a variety of means, emergency alert system, different kinds of social media, reverse 911," said Director of California Emergency Services Mark Ghilarducci.

But one alert system may not have been used enough.

FEMA's wireless emergency alert system sends out a push notification that overrides volume controls, turning your cell phone into a very loud fire alarm.

"This is one that we're subscribed to in terms of we're in the application process. We're waiting for it to be approved. We've been in that process for months now," said Russ Brown with the Yuba County Office of Emergency Services.

Brown says while his agency did not have that system during the Cascade Fire, they used a similar one.

"We call it Code Red, it's a service that we subscribe to that we've had out for several years now here in Yuba County. People subscribe to it, they get their information on their land line, cell phones, email, whatever they can," Brown said.

Brown doesn't believe FEMA's system would have saved lives in Yuba County because communication utilities were wiped out long before flames reached homes.

"I mean poles went down, electricity went out. A lot of issues obviously. This is a very fast moving, very hot fire that happened, and it took down a lot of capabilities," Brown said.

However, Sonoma County officials tell FOX40 they decided not to use it out of concern it would cause panic and clog roadways, potentially blocking rescue workers.

And if a cellphone is turned off, FEMA's system won't work.

But the ultimate fail safe was used, in all the burn areas, emergency crews were delivering evacuation warnings on foot.

"Our deputies and our CalFire, they reached pretty much every resident ahead of this fire trying to get people out," Brown said.

According to the Washington Post, more than 65 percent of the nation's 3,500 counties do not have agreements in place with FEMA to send out the emergency alerts.

U.S. Senators Kamala Harris and Dianne Feinstein raised concerns with the FCC Chairman Ajit Pai about the limitations of the wireless emergency alert system.

In the wake of the deadliest wildfires in California’s history, U.S Senators Kamala D. Harris and Dianne Feinstein (both D-CA) today raised concerns with Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai about the limitations of the Wireless Emergency Alert system.

“Recent news reports have indicated that emergency services in Northern California were not able to transmit lifesaving WEA messages, because of significant technical deficiencies in the WEA system,” the senators wrote. “Specifically, because the WEA system does not enable precise geotargeting—a feature that has been standard in mobile applications for years—emergency services cannot send an evacuation message without reaching a large number of unaffected residents. These emergency services are caught in a bind between notifying individuals in imminent danger and risking mass panic. As a result, these services are compelled to rely on emergency messaging systems with far less reach and far less capacity.”