03:52 - Source: CNN
Neighbors sift through charred rubble

Story highlights

Local officials didn't fully understand the federal system that sends screech alerts to cell phones, the report found

They also didn't quickly grasp the magnitude of the fire threat, it found

CNN —  

Confusion among local public officials about how critical phone alert systems work was a key reason many residents got caught off guard last year when wildfires tore through Sonoma County, California, a state assessment found.

Local leaders’ inability to quickly grasp the magnitude of the disaster also contributed to delays and, in some cases, failure to send emergency warnings and evacuation orders to those in harm’s way, according to the report issued Monday by the California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services.

The report, which the county requested, follows a wave of criticism from residents who said they weren’t well informed of the risk when deadly wildfires sparked in early October.

Though Sonoma County had an established public alert system, “specific procedures for using those alert and warning capabilities were uncoordinated and included gaps, overlaps, and redundancies,” the report states.

Also, the county’s emergency manager opted not to use the federal Wireless Emergency Alert system, known as WEA. The system forces cell phones in a geographic area to screech and display an emergency alert, such as an Amber Alert. People don’t have to sign up for the service.

The county manager’s decision not to use WEA “was influenced not just by experience, previous policy discussions, and perceived knowledge of the situation, but also by a limited awareness and understanding of the WEA System and outdated information regarding WEA’s technical capabilities,” according to the report.

Sonoma County officials have said they hadn’t wanted to use WEA because of concern it would target too large a geographic area, prompting unnecessary evacuations and causing traffic gridlock.

Another concern was the system’s 90-character limit, which was deemed too short to tell people when and how to evacuate and where to go.

Despite those concerns, the report states: “A timely abbreviated message is preferable to a thorough message delivered too late.”

Limited-scope alert systems used

Sonoma officials did send alerts through the private service Nixle and the county’s SoCoAlert system, which both require residents to sign up in advance. Some people told CNN last year they didn’t even know the systems existed.

In the first 24 hours of the October fires, messages send by the county reached about 27,000 telephone numbers via SoCoAlert. The county’s sheriff’s department also sent about 21,000 text messages and 16,300 emails through Nixle during that period.

About 500,000 people live in Sonoma County.

But in the early hours of the crisis, the county “lacked reliable, timely, and coordinated situational awareness as to the scale, size, and scope of the fires’ growth, character, and movement,” according to the report.

The fire spread so quickly that dispatch operators “struggled to digest the multitude of reports” as countless small fires were reported and at least nine significant fires had merged into three major blazes.

Further, many of the county’s emergency procedures and policies had been used for floods, which are usually much slower than the rapid fires that broke out, the assessment found.

CNN’s Cheri Mossburg and Dakin Andone contributed to this report.