Butte County, CA officials are questioning why the county’s sheriff’s office didn’t originate a Wireless Emergency Alert (WEA) to warn residents as the most destructive wildfire in the state’s history burned through the county. Instead, Butte Count Sheriff officials deployed evacuation crews on foot and sent Paradise and Magalia residents messages through its opt-in “Code Red” system that comprised emails, reverse calls and text messages, according to Government Technology and Inside Towers reports.
The inability to issue a WEA during these fires demonstrates how important it is for commercial real estate owners to have strong cell service in their buildings. Most of the time discussions on why property owners need good in-building coverage revolve around satisfying tenants’ demands to be able to use their mobile devices whether it’s for professional or personal use. However, it’s important to recognize wireless cellular coverage serves a much bigger and more important purpose than streaming video capabilities—public safety.
The non-use of WEA during the wildfires comes somewhat as a surprise, considering California agencies have nearly doubled WEA use this year compared to 2017. According to Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) data, California agencies at the city, county and state levels issued just 66 alerts last year, and 108 by the middle of November in 2018.
A potential reason for not using a WEA, which has been promoted in statewide legislation, is cell phone service is reportedly “spotty” in the Paradise area and a lot elderly residents rely on their landlines. According to Government Technology, a new protocol that will require California’s Office of Emergency Services to develop emergency protocols for counties and improve training and access to WEA’s is being drafted.
Meanwhile, Butte County sheriff’s officials are not answering questions about their decision not to issue WEA alerts. A spokeswoman stated the office is still in, “emergency response mode” and there have not been time to analyze what actions were taken.
“No single notification system is 100 percent effective,” said Butte County sheriff’s office spokeswoman Megan McMann. “That is made more difficult with how rapid this fire was moving. When this emergency is over, we will be able to put our attention toward this.”
Today, first responders are becoming more reliant on cellular coverage not only to communicate with one another but to help save lives. In fact, companies like public safety Distributed Antenna Systems (DAS) solutions provider SOLiD are continuously developing indoor and outdoor cellular and public safety solutions for buildings where it’s difficult to get signals through. The fact that companies are dedicating so many resources to ensure first responders can communicate effectively shows how important it is for commercial real estate owners to have a strong in-building signal in the first place.
Providing tenants the ability to stream and generate data wirelessly is a nice perk, but they’ll appreciate their building owner’s coverage even more if there’s an emergency and a WEA needs to be issued. A strong cellular signal could be a literal lifesaver—as Butte County is learning now.
“What would have been nice to see in the Camp Fire [was a] WEA alert to let everyone know about the fire and to prepare accordingly,” said Thomas Cova, director of the Center for Natural & Technological Hazards at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City.