Life and death alerts are low tech/no tech, California firestorm study shows

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Social media and other online services were not the way people received lifesaving warnings when a firestorm tore through three northern California counties last year. Nearly all were alerted to evacuate via phone or personal contact, or by their own eyes, ears and noses.

That’s a top line read of the data from a study just published by the North Bay/North Coast Broadband Consortium. They ran an online survey and 3,700 people responded, nearly all of them from the hardest hit counties of Mendocino, Napa and Sonoma. The number is significant as it stands, even if it wasn’t a scientifically selected sample.

Given that some people had “literally seconds” to leave their homes in the face of a wall of fire that moved at speeds up to 50 miles per hour, the most important question is “how did you receive warning/notice to evacuate?” About a quarter got no warning at all – they figured it out themselves – and about a third were alerted by phone calls of various kinds. Nearly a quarter got a boots-on-the-ground warning – someone banged on their door or shouted out to them. Most of the rest checked other, and closer inspection shows nearly all of those responses are also variations on phone, physical or smell-the-smoke alerts.

The Internet accounted for very few of the time-critical messages. Of the more than 1,600 evacuees who responded, only 11 credited online sources for the warning: five people mentioned Facebook, four said Nextdoor and two saw notices on public agency websites. Even in those cases, most already knew something was going on. Radio and TV – ancient compared to the Internet, but newer tech than phones or feet – were almost as insignificant.

Across those three counties, 78% of respondents said they lost “some to all” of their cellular voice and data service, while 66% reported the same for wireline phones. Just looking at Internet connectivity, of whatever sort, 69% said they lost “some to all” of it.

There’s no mystery about the cause. The fires burned countless utility poles (some argue blazes were started by electric lines mounted on those poles) and more than “340 cell sites were completely destroyed or damaged”. When infrastructure goes up in smoke, service disappears too.

The report is largely quantitative and doesn’t point any particular fingers of blame, noting “the severity of the 2017 wildfires was unpredictable”.

North Bay/North Coast Broadband Consortium Telecommunications Outage Report: Northern California Firestorm 2017, released 10 May 2018.
Report Appendices, released 10 May 2018.
More information from the North Bay/North Coast Broadband Consortium.