March 22, the California Office of Emergency Services released guidelines for pubic alerts and warnings.
A committee of state, local and federal representatives prepared the document in response to questions and criticisms of alert and warning systems throughout the state during the numerous wildfires that have occurred in recent years.
“Recent disasters in California have highlighted troubling shortfalls, differences and inconsistencies among various alert and warning programs. As a result, many public safety and community leaders have expressed the need for more awareness of emerging systems and technologies used throughout the state and nation, and work towards an improved and more standardized approach,” wrote Mark S. Ghilarducci, director of the California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services.
The guidelines are intended to enable local governments, such as counties or special districts, to develop and to apply consistent and best practices, procedures and protocols when a major disaster or threatening event occurs.
The guidelines recommend multiple applications, adequate testing, training and functional equipment, such as software. They suggest the minimum expectations for jurisdictions implementing an alert and warning system.
A major bedrock of the alert or warning systems will be two critical and well-known federal programs — the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s Integrated Public Alert and Warning System and the National Weather System’s alerts.
The guidelines define an alert as “a communication intended to attract public attention to an unusual situation and motivate individual awareness.” If it is effective, the intended audience will search for additional information.
A warning is defined a “communication intended to persuade members of the public to take one or more protective actions in order to reduce losses or harm.” It effectiveness is whether the intended audience “takes the protective action and/or heeds the guidance.” Warnings should be issued when there is an imminent threat to life, health or property.
“[Idyllwild Fire Protection District] is currently working with several other cooperators in an effort to ensure that we have an effective and efficient warning system for the community,” wrote Acting Fire Chief Mark LaMont in an email.
The guidelines stress that there is no single formula for making warning decisions. But the authors acknowledge, “Incomplete or imperfect information is not a valid reason to delay or avoid issuing a warning.”
Further, the guidelines support the view that issuing a warning is unlikely to trigger “panic.” A credible public warning rarely leads to distrust or panic. In fact, the alerting agency should “err on the side of protecting the public.” The guidelines then added, “people rarely act on a single warning message alone.”
Warnings and alerts should be limited to the people actually at risk, the guidelines also advise.
There should be designated public officials responsible, with a chain of command. They should use the Integrated Public Alert and Warning System as the primary means to issue alerts or warnings.
Recently, resurrecting the use of a public siren as an alert has been discussed with Idyllwild Fire Department and county officials. The guidelines do not advocate this method, but they also do not oppose it. The authors identify several shortcomings in many siren systems, such as limitations penetrating well-insulated homes and buildings, plus visitors’ unfamiliarity with their intent and message.
“As for a local warning siren, we are discussing the many dynamic pieces of utilizing this type of alerting system including location, education, funding, maintenance, etc. Internet alerting messages, WNKI 1610 and Reverse 911 are currently utilized for notifications,” LaMont explained in the email.
A thorough public education campaign is recommended to help the intended public understand the siren’s message and next steps.

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