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How IPAWS Could Have Saved Lives in the California Wildfires

Written by Ryan Strait

Nearly 80 lives were lost during the Campfire Wildfire in California. Why didn't local authorities use IPAWS technology to save lives?

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The photos of raging wildfires obliterating entire communities across the state of California are devastating. Charred, hollow cars, vast expanses of ash, and scenic overlooks replaced by red and orange conflagrations. As devastating as the photos have been, the stories of needless loss of life have been even more incomprehensible and tragic. California authorities have estimated that nearly 80 lives have been lost to the recent Campfire wildfire in California, while nearly 700 citizens are still missing. Those nearly 800 people represent mothers, fathers, children, friends, and loved ones, who have been victims of a natural disaster that is difficult to contain and impossible to predict. What is not impossible, however, is the distribution of life-saving instructions for citizens in impacted areas—yet such calls to action where incomprehensibly absent on days when authorities knew of impending risks and could have used available tools to send messages of warning and evacuation.

Record-Breaking Natural Disasters and Loss of Life                                                     

During the recent Campfire wildfires, in too many cases, residents in impacted communities were told to evacuate not by authorities leveraging targeted mass notification technology, such as FEMA’s Integrated Public Alert and Warning System—a tool that can issue warnings and instructions to millions of people in seconds—but by neighbors pounding on their doors.

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Even more baffling than this lack of leveraged technology, the recent Campfire wildfires were not the only recent natural disaster in the state of California in which citizen communications fell short. The past year has seen disaster after disaster devastate the Golden State, from the wine country fires to the Montecito mudslides. More than 140 lives have been lost during these events over the past 13 months—over 140 lives too many considering in many cases local authorities had access to mass notification technology that could have been influential in issuing early warning messages that instructed citizens to evacuate due to impending threats.

Underutilized and Outdated Technology Leads to Loss of Life

After missed opportunities to leverage mass notification technology during the Wine Country wildfires in the Fall and Winter of 2017, citizens could only hope their local public safety leaders would not fail them again in any future widescale disasters. Yet, when the worst fire in California history raged across the town of Paradise, officials used an older alert system that reached only a fraction of the town instead of the Wireless Emergency Alert (WEA) system, an integrated component of FEMA’s powerful IPAWS technology.

According to an article published by The LA Times, “by the time officials issued an order to evacuate the rest of the city, the  CodeRed telephone warning system was too slow to blanket the town with an immediate warning.”

Thomas Cova, director of the University of Utah’s Center for Natural and Technological Hazards was quoted by The LA Times as saying, “In both the [wine country] fire and the [Paradise] fire, if you look at the growing number of fatalities — they were people who were in their house or running to their car. That’s indicative of a population that was never alerted. They didn’t see anything on their TV, radio, nothing. We are not using all the tools we could to communicate with people.”

A Responsibility to Serve and Communicate

Mass evacuations pose a variety of logistical issues that public safety officers need to keep in mind, such as the safety of travelers on potentially hazardous roads, impenetrable traffic congestion, and the risk of mass hysteria. Despite these considerations, public safety officers owe it to the people they serve to utilize every possible communication channel available to issue life-saving alerts, warnings, and instructions, especially when evacuations are imminent or even conservatively recommended to mitigate the loss of life. A mass notification technology that integrates with FEMA’s IPAWS can help.

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How Can IPAWS Help Save Lives in a Natural Disaster

IPAWS is designed to help create and distribute local emergency notifications to your community through all the nation’s available alert and warning channels. Without requiring an advanced citizen subscription, IPAWS allows emergency communication managers to disseminate critical news and information to residents and travelers through such government emergency notification systems as:

  • The Emergency alert system (EAS), which broadcasts to AM/FM radios and public televisions
  • WEA sent to capable wireless devices.
  • National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) weather radio alerts
  • Local sirens
  • Digital signs
  • Other local and unique systems

Communities that utilize a government emergency notification system that integrates with IPAWS are best equipped to amplify their emergency communications and reach as many citizens as possible with critical news, updates, and instructions.

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When there is even the possibility of loss of life, public safety leaders owe it to their citizens to share the information that they have so that citizens can make informed decisions regarding their safety. Mass notification technology allows local governments to err on the side of information distribution to minimize delays in evacuation.

To learn more about how CivicReady® and FEMA’s IPAWS can keep your citizens safe and informed during an emergency, click here to watch a recorded webinar and learn more about the life-saving power of FEMA's IPAWS.