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Following Wildfires, California to Reconsider Alert Systems

After rampant wildfires (and subsequent mudflows) forced tens of thousands of Californians to evacuate their homes late last year, California legislators and emergency preparedness officials are considering a major revamp of alert systems in place to streamline emergency communication, the Hill reports.

Where there are now more avenues for news and information than ever before, California officials such as Kelly Huston, the deputy director of California's Office of Emergency Services, have stressed that, in times of emergency, alert systems have fallen behind when it comes to using newer technology and communication platforms.

"The disparity in alert and warning over the years has become really fractured," Huston told the Hill. "In the old days, you could use radio and television and you could get most of the people." Instead, people now use many different platforms, social media, and devices to access their news, making it difficult to have one uniform source of emergency information to reach everyone.

Each of California's 58 counties has an emergency system in place, most relying on the opt-in federal Wireless Emergency Alert system. The WEA geographically targets WEA-enabled mobile devices and disseminates text-like messages to those in affected areas. But this system has limited reach; the messages do not reach those without wireless phones and allow only 90 characters of text. The system also can't share visuals, video, or audio to supplement the announcements.

The proposed system would increase emergency alert outreach by communicating through cell phones and landlines, as well as by radio, television, and state-controlled billboards on highways.