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September 20, 2018
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RP waits to make update to emergency alert system

By: Katherine Minkiewicz
August 17, 2018

The effectiveness of emergency alert systems has been a hot topic since last years’ raging wildfires hit Sonoma County and came frighteningly close to Rohnert Park. After almost a year since the fires, the Rohnert Park City Council decided Tuesday to wait to update the city’s alert system until a county review of the SoCo and Everbridge alert system is tested.

Sonoma County is currently working with the Bay Area Urban Area Security Initiative to test the effectiveness of two and to determine which system will be recommended for all county cities to use. While the test and reports are estimated to take around nine months, county officials and the departing Chief for the Rohnert Park Department of Public Safety, Brian Masterson say that having the same alert system for all cities would be more streamlined and would create less confusion among residents in the event of an emergency.

The two systems to be tested both have the same capabilities that would allow public safety and first responders to send “amber alert” type messages to all residents whether or not they are signed up for the service or not. This special FEMA feature called IPAWS, Integrated Public Alert Warning System, is able to use all avenues of technology in the event of an emergency by sending out reverse 9-1-1 calls to landlines as well as sending out widespread amber type alerts to all cell phone users in a specific geographic area.

Nixle, the city’s current alert system, requires users to sign up in order to get alerts and while some 15,000 residents were signed up to receive alerts when evacuation orders were given to residents in G and H sections, an Everbridge or SoCo system would ensure all 42,000 or so locals would be notified in the event of an emergency.

Petaluma and Santa Rosa have also been using Nixle, but months following the fire the City of Santa Rosa and its alert system were under tough scrutiny with critics saying residents weren’t given enough warning according to an October 2017 KTVU article.

The article states the Sonoma County Sherriff’s Office did activate the Nixle system, which also sent out reverse 9-1-1 warning calls; however, as similar with Rohnert Park’s case, only a small portion of the community were signed up to receive the alert.

What’s more, the emergency management office for Sonoma County could have initiated their wireless emergency alert mechanism which sends a vibrating/siren push alert to cell phones in a certain geographic area. This feature is the IPAWS capability; however, according to Masterson, the SoCo alert system is challenging and clunky to use, which can be detrimental in an emergency situation.

“The SoCo Alert system is more challenging to operate and to activate. It is not easy or user-friendly,” Masterson said.

According to the agenda item report, the county said they would offer to train public safety on the SoCo Alert system, something that would be free of charge instead of the alternative option of going with the Everbridge system at $47,156 per year. If Rohnert Park decided to go with Everbridge, the parent company of Nixle, and all other county cities stuck with SoCo after the county’s evaluation, then it could be confusing for residents. 

For instance, if you are a Rohnert Park resident visiting Penngrove and an earthquake were to occur then you would receive multiple different alerts from Everbridge and Penngrove’s system. But if all cities used the same widespread alert system then residents would get the same alert no matter where they were in the county and visitors as well would receive an alert if there was an evacuation or shelter in place order.

So, in order to be more prepared, the council decided to wait until the review was completed to receive direction from the county on what emergency alert program to use.

So far only the county has the ability to access these additional emergency alert system features.

While all council members present agreed to wait on the county decision many had other thoughts on how else Rohnert Park could alert its residents in the face of a disaster.

Council member Jake Mackenzie said there should be time spent for the public to learn the importance of being a helpful neighbor or even having a group of volunteers to help out during an emergency situation. 

“There is a lot to be considered,” Mackenzie said, who also mentioned that during the evacuation of H and G sections last year he had to go and knock on neighbors’ doors, “Who would have otherwise slept through the police car sirens and PA system warnings.

Councilmember Gina Belforte brought up the idea of community sirens being installed as well, which would still provide warning in the event of cell phone towers collapsing. Sirens would cost around $25,000 per siren installation. 

“We don’t have enough public safety officers to run around knocking on everyone’s door and using sirens. We know no matter what, someone is going to get missed in some way shape or form and what I am leaning towards is two things; greater community involvement, neighbors helping neighbors and (for the sirens) when I hear $25,000 is too much, in my head I’m thinking, 24 people died and would they pay $25,000 to get them back? I think the answer is yes,” Belforte said. “A life in Rohnert Park is worth more than $25,000, so to rely on a technology and not have an alternative in case that technology fails, doesn’t feel right to me.”

As councilmembers unanimously decided to wait on upgrading the alert system, Nixle will still be in place and residents who are not yet signed up are encouraged to sign up at Nixle.com.