California Bill Would Create Opt-Out Alert System

"Recent California wildfires have driven home how important it is that we have a way to notify people quickly and effectively so they can leave burning neighborhoods, check in on loved ones, and make the best choices for their safety at any hour of the day or night," said State Sen. Hannah-Beth Jackson.

Two Democrats in the California Legislature, Sen. Hannah-Beth Jackson (D-Santa Barbara) and Assemblymember Monique Limón (D-Santa Barbara), announced Jan. 3 that, following the devastating Thomas Fire, they will introduce bills to create an opt-out emergency alert system, improve emergency communications to non-English speaking immigrant communities, and reduce wildfire risk to new homes.

Jackson's Senate Bill 821 would give counties the option of automatically enrolling every resident in a location-based emergency notification program -- a program from which residents could opt out of the alerts. They reported many of California's public warning systems have the ability to deliver notifications to residents based on their homes' location but require residents to sign up before they receive the cell phone and email alerts, while a federal Wireless Emergency Alert (WEA) system does not require residents to sign up but can't precisely target specific neighborhoods.

When the Thomas Fire, a major wildfire, began, fewer than 30 percent of residents had signed up to receive county cell phone and email alerts, they said.

"Recent California wildfires have driven home how important it is that we have a way to notify people quickly and effectively so they can leave burning neighborhoods, check in on loved ones, and make the best choices for their safety at any hour of the day or night," Jackson said. "With climate change creating the potential for longer and more severe fire seasons, we must strengthen our emergency alert systems and allow officials to effectively target alerts to specific areas or neighborhoods under threat."

Another bill by Limón would require state and county Office of Emergency Services emergency communications to be made available in the second-most-spoken language in a county. It would require translation for the second-most-spoken language be made available during OES emergency communications such as broadcasts, emergency hearings, and press conferences. "Accurate, updated information is absolutely vital in an emergency—this can be even more challenging for the communities where a significant percentage of the population speaks another language," she said. "In a dynamic emergency like the Thomas Fire, timing is everything. Real time translated emergency information is essential to alleviate confusion and ensure the safety of everyone."

A third bill by Jackson would strengthen CalFIRE's ability to weigh in on local development plans in order to reduce wildfire risk to new homes and neighborhoods.

Hearings for the bills have not yet been scheduled.

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