Sunday, June 4, 2023

‘The Test Lets Us Build a Better System’: Mendocino County’s Office of Emergency Services on Yesterday’s Test of the Wireless Emergency Alert System

Mendocino County Sheriff Matt Kendall and Office of Emergency Service Coordinator Brentt Blaser reviewing the “Know Your Zone” evacuation map [Picture provided by MCSO]

Yesterday, in efforts to shore up county-wide emergency notification systems, Mendocino County’s Office of Emergency Services conducted a test of the Wireless Emergency Alert (WEA) System. Emergency Services Coordinator Brentt Blaser explained the test was designed to find weaknesses in the system. He characterized it as a success having garnered specific feedback from county residents which allowed county personnel to optimize the system before needing to use it during an actual emergency.

As Mendocino County enters fire season, Blaser said there was an urgency to test this system and not wait till the “county is on fire.” He explained that he told his staff that “we are going to test this thing right now.”

Sheriff Kendall said yesterday’s test was “absolutely successful because we were looking for bugs.” He added, “Nothing is perfect on the first run. We identified the bugs and now we get to figure them out.”

Based on feedback provided by county residents, Blaser told us approximately 61.3% of residents reported receiving the WEA message. This data indicates, Blaser explained, there is a gap in the county’s infrastructure influenced by the topography and terrain of the region.

Fort Bragg resident Judy Valadao told us the WEA “definitely got my attention” describing an audible alarm emanating from her phone and a message that popped up on her smartphone.

Willits resident Debra Pedigo-Bryant told us she did not receive the message and instead read about others receiving the message on Facebook. Her husband received one, “but I didn’t,” she told us.

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Regarding the public’s response on social media, Sheriff Kendall said he “appreciated the feedback” and said it will be utilized to make adjustments to emergency notification procedures.

Mendocino County’s OES and MCSO have published press releases in previous weeks to inform the public of the upcoming test and yesterday morning issued a Nixle message reminding residents they would receive the WEA from approximately 12:00 p.m.-1:00 p.m.

The Wireless Emergency Alert system utilizes the same technologies the well-known Amber Alert notification employs, Blaser explained.

The WEA included a hyperlink to MendoReady.org, a newly created website curated by the Office of Emergency Services designed to be a comprehensive resource for Mendocino County residents regarding emergency information and preparation. Blaser explained yesterday’s test allowed county personnel to get a sense of what sort of traffic that website could sustain, and acknowledged that at one point, the website went down because so many county residents were visiting it. 

“We needed to test out what sort of load the website could carry. With the alert going out to nearly 90,000 people, we needed to understand the capacity needed to withstand the load,” Blaser added.

Another aspect of yesterday’s test was introducing and educating Mendocino County residents of the newly established zone designations, hence the branding attached to the test known as “Know Your Zone.” Sheriff Kendall and Blaser explained these zone designations were designed to distinguish areas of Mendocino County so evacuations and other disaster necessities could be more efficient. Roads with similar names and unclear geographic boundaries caused confusion as to the scope of evacuations. Blaser explained the zone designations will help OES be more explicit about the exact areas that need to be evacuated in future emergencies.

As per a survey distributed by OES, feedback from Mendocino County residents indicated that approximately 40% of WEA recipients successfully located their “zone.” Blaser said knowing that 60% of residents who received the WEA were unable to identify their zone directs the county to focus efforts on educating the public as to their zone and how to access it on MendoReady.org.

Both Sheriff Kendall and Blaser emphasized the importance of testing emergency notification systems during times of safety, rather than an actual emergency. Blaser explained that finding flaws in the notification systems now will help emergency services refine their technology for a time of an actual emergency.

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Sheriff Kendall put it in terms of building new airplanes: “There is a reason we have test pilots. Boeing can build the best aircraft, but they put a pilot behind the yoke of that thing before they put a bunch of passengers on.”

Blaser said the WEA system will be utilized when Mendocino County faces a major emergency. The system does require any sort of registration, unlike systems such as Nixle, and specific geographic locations can be targeted. The only requirement for residents to receive the WEA alerts is their phone settings must be on for local alerts, according to Blaser.

The Wireless Emergency Alerts is a federal system that requires Mendocino County receive specific permissions to implement a test. Blaser stated that Congressman Jared Huffman helped advocate for Mendocino County’s ability to test the system county-wide.

Reflecting on the test, Blaser was thankful for it saying, “Sometimes change doesn’t happen until you know it’s needed.” Based on feedback the county has gathered, he said, “The investments are going to be made to bolster infrastructure.”

Sheriff Kendall added, “Mendocino County has got to continue moving forward. Without these tests and finding the flaws, we cannot move forward.”

Mendocino County is still actively seeking input from residents regarding their experience of yesterday’s test. Go to this link and provide feedback to help the Office of Emergency Services work to optimize the emergency notification system.

Earlier Chapter

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Matt LaFever
Matt LaFeverhttps://mendofever.com/
I like to think of myself as a reporter for the Average Joe. Journalism has become a craft defined largely by city dwellers on America's coasts. It’s time to take it back. I have been an Emerald Triangle resident since 2006 and this is year ten in Mendocino County. Please, email me at matthewplafever@gmail.com if you know a story that needs to be told.

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