By Debra Moore
The sound is jarring and will probably remain with Plumas County residents for some time – it’s the wireless emergency alert that ordered people to evacuate the area immediately or be prepared to do so.
But why were these orders buzzing through some cell phones and not others?
According to Mike Grant, who heads Plumas County Search and Rescue and guides the county’s emergency communication system, it stems from an issue with Verizon.
It wasn’t until the Beckwourth Complex Fire that Grant realized just how many Plumas County residents use Verizon as their mobile carrier. He receives data when emergency alerts are sent — i.e. to how many people and their carrier — and he said roughly 80 percent go to Verizon customers.
However Verizon has had issues of late — issues that are expected to be resolved with the addition of two more towers (one on Radio Hill and one in East Quincy), but they aren’t available yet.
Grant uses Verizon because he said it provides better coverage in the backcountry, where as a Search and Rescue member, he spends a lot of time. However, AT&T provides better coverage in town.
During the past week, he was with a coworker when an emergency alert went out; his phone was silent, but the other sounded the alarm.
Grant is aware of that problem, as well as other issues, and has been working to remedy them.
He began by convincing Verizon to bring a mobile site to Radio Hill. But that only solved a part of the problem. The service is interrupted, Verizon customers are served through US Cellular, and that system also had failures.
In contrast, Grant said that AT&T has made a lot of improvements to its system, which allows it to handle three to four times the amount of emergency alerts that Verizon can.
There was also an issue about what geographical areas the emergency alerts would cover. After experiencing some coverage issues on the Beckwourth Complex Fire, Grant worked with the Office of Emergency Services to expand coverage to alert the entire county.
While some people report receiving no alerts, others report receiving multiples. Grant said that can happen if an individual moves in and out of a coverage area.
While there are Wireless Emergency Alerts (WEAs), there are also Code Red Alerts available, that can include more information. In addition the WEAs cannot include punctuation, which can make it difficult to decipher the exact location at times. Grant said that prior to the Beckwourth Complex, 6,000 people were signed up for Code Red; that number has increased to 13,000. To sign up for Code Red click here
Discerning locations is another issue. While locals tend to know areas by landmarks and streets, the Forest Service uses a system that often includes unpopulated areas and isn’t always familiar to residents.
Overall, the communication issues facing emergency responders in Plumas County and other rural areas, are capacity of system, countywide delivery, and loss of connectivity. Grant has addressed the delivery and is working with carriers to improve the capacity and connectivity.