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Ineffective Warnings Cost Many Lives

[Editor’s Note: Reports from the recent California fires indicate that government agencies apparently chose to ignore EAS in favor or “opt-in” reverse 911 systems. In some areas of the Camp Fire, over 90% of residents did NOT receive warning. Mark Miller sees the failure to activate EAS as a large factor in the fatalities.]

I am a contract engineer based in the North Sacramento Valley area. I have worked for small market commercial and public stations from California to Alaska.

When the Carr Fire ripped thru the edge of Redding, CA recently there were several things regarding the evacuation notifications that drew my attention. Among them were notifications that did not go to the Redding area from some stations that covered Redding but their community of license was not Redding. Conversations with the CEs have hopefully rectified this but this is an indication of how the EAS is in need of some oversight.

Paradise California was a beautiful and affordable small mountain town near Chico, CA with many older residents. Those residents close to myself received reverse 911 warnings, and within a few minutes, mandatory evacuation calls for the Camp Fire. They were lucky that the telco power and lines were still available. Few cell users received the warning calls. Almost all of the 80+ fatalities were elderly.

The EAS was NOT activated even though the County officials had IPAWS terminals and the mandatory trained personnel to operate them, which could have sent the evacuation orders to stations instantly. One wonders how many of the nearly 90 fatalities might have been able to escape had they been able to see or hear the alert on their TVs and radios. The fire was very fast moving, and our dedicated 911 personnel certainly had their hands full with this, as well as the previous evacuations of the Oroville Dam spillway failures and other recent wildland fires but we could do better.

The EAS is supposed to be a “volunteer” program. Of the dozens of stations that I have been associated with over the years, none have opted out, although most of them view the EAS as a low priority, unfunded mandate for small markets, in a time when media revenues have shifted to internet outlets. Local area chairpersons are often busy with their “day’ jobs.”   ‘Volunteer’ really just means ‘unfunded.’

* I propose that all authorities that are equipped to activate the EAS via  IPAWS be required to send weekly ‘log-only’ EAS tests.  This would keep this valuable resource at the front of their minds in the chaos of a major emergency.

* Stations that stream their programs should be required to stream the local EAS emergency activations.

* The FEMA should support the system by funding local EAS chairpersons expenses and oversight costs.

* The FEMA should subsidize EAS equipment for the smaller market stations for updated encoders/decoders when they are needed and provide free decoders for LPFMs.

* FEMA should revitalize their defunct emergency generator program.

Efforts to divert funds from the FEMA for other projects should be stopped. As we cause planetary level changes to the environment, and we have, there will be repercussions.

A flawed emergency system is sometimes worse than no system.

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Mark Miller