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Life-saving emergency alerts often come too late or not at all

Emergency alerts often delayed or not sent
CBS News investigation finds emergency alerts are often delayed or don't come at all 06:01

Jessica Tunis doesn't understand why emergency officials have not learned from her mother's death. The Santa Rosa, California, woman said her mother, Linda, did not receive an evacuation alert to warn her the fast-moving Nuns-Tubbs wildfires were raging nearby.   

The 69-year-old's body was found in the burned rubble of the Journey's End Mobile Home Park in October 2017. Evacuation alerts didn't go out to the neighborhood where Linda Tunis lived, until after she was already dead. About two dozen Sonoma County residents also died. The county head of emergency management at the time said he made the decision not to send that alert because of concerns a widespread message would cause chaos in evacuations and hinder response.  

CBS News found at least a dozen natural disasters in the United States during the last decade where local emergency officials failed to issue alerts in time to save lives or, in some cases, didn't issue an alert or evacuation order at all. 

The most recent example is from the island of Maui. In August, reports show emergency managers sent out cellphone alerts too late after service was down and admitted they decided not to sound the island's warning sirens during the firestorm that destroyed the town of Lahaina. Maui's emergency manager later said he didn't set off the sirens because they were primarily meant for tsunamis — he feared residents would flee inland toward the flames. 

"It's infuriating and agonizing because every time this happens, I think 'why have these people not learned from our tragedy what we went through here,'" Jessica Tunis said. 

The official investigation into what went wrong on Maui is ongoing. 

Jessica Tunis has become an advocate for more comprehensive rules to encourage officials to send alerts, even in times of confusion. 

"The main issue is that those folks who are responsible for pushing the button and sending the alerts need to err on the side of over-alerting [the public]," Tunis said. "But [the emergency managers are] worrying that they're going to cause a panic. That's what happened here. They were afraid they're going to cause a panic." 

The Sonoma County emergency manager, who decided not to push the button in a timely matter that fateful night in 2017, retired soon after the tragedy. He did not return numerous messages by CBS News requesting a comment. 

Since then, the county created a new position called Community Alert and Warning Manager.  Sam Wallis, who holds that position, was also in the county's Emergency Operations Center during the Nuns-Tubbs fires. 

"What we learned through painful experience is if we wait too long, then even if the information is accurate, it may not be effective," Wallis said. 

Three people search through the ashes of a house destroyed by a wildfire in Santa Rosa, California, in 2017
A family searches the ashes of their house in 2017 after the Tubbs fire in Santa Rosa, California. Barbara Munker/picture alliance via Getty Images

County managers should have sent out an alert and woken up people back in 2017, Wallis told CBS News. He believes things have changed drastically because of what happened then. 

"One of the techniques that we employ here is as soon as we think that there's a significant issue, we're just going to issue an alert," Wallis said. "We're going to wake everybody up, you know, and we're going to go big." 

Wallis explained the policy now is to alert a wide area if it might be threatened. 

"This at least gets people awake," he said. "They're able to look around. They can make their own assessment of whether they are in danger or not." 

California lawmakers even changed state law after that fire season. The rules now say, "when dealing with uncertain or conflicting information about a threat, the Alerting Authority should choose to err on the side of protecting the public." 

"There's a natural hesitancy, especially when you're talking about maybe getting 100,000 people moving," Wallis said. "There's a reluctance to do that until you're absolutely certain, and I guess the biggest lesson learned that I took away from this is: press the button. Press the button." 

For many people in charge of warning the public, it's not something that happens regularly.  

"If you think about it, very few emergency managers ever utilize the system," said FEMA's former administrator Craig Fugate. "We've got to move this to where emergency managers are comfortable activating the system." 

Former FEMA leader says emergency alert staff need training to practice "pushing the button" 06:58

Fugate knows about warning the public during emergencies at all three levels of government: federal, state, and local. He not only served as FEMA administrator in President Obama's administration, he also served as Florida's Director of Emergency Management under Governor Jeb Bush and before that was a local emergency manager in Alachua County, Florida. 

"There will be cases where the people say, well, they probably didn't need to" send an alert, Fugate said. "I'd rather deal with that, than reluctance or failure to activate and people don't get the information [and] we lose lives." 

Alerts come too late or not at all 

CBS News examined disasters dating back more than 10 years to understand how and when authorities do and do not send out alerts. The public frequently gets severe weather alerts from the National Weather Service. The dozen examples CBS News uncovered are alerts from local emergency managers and law enforcement, which give the public specifics on how to respond to an emergency. They involve different disasters, including wildfires, active shooters, tornadoes, hurricanes and blizzards. 

The problems date back more than a decade to Superstorm Sandy in October 2012. The storm impacted millions of people living up and down the East Coast, killing 72 in the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast, according to NOAA. 

In a post-storm evaluation compiled for then-New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, officials said that during Superstorm Sandy "many [public communications] challenges arose for which the City can be better prepared in the future."  

And while New York City "became the first local municipality in the country to use the Commercial Mobile Alert System (CMAS), an emergency text message service created by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to send text messages to all equipped cell phones in a designated geographical area regardless of phone carrier service or origin," only some residents got those wireless emergency alerts. 

A history of concerns with emergency alerts 01:05

After the deadliest and most destructive wildfire in California's history, the November 2018 Camp Fire, which destroyed the town of Paradise and killed 85 people, a Butte County after-action report found "mass notification system failures resulted in notifications not reaching the intended audience."  

Texans experienced what officials called a "lack of coordination" with alerts during Winter Storm Uri in 2021, according to an after-action report-246 people died. The document, from the City of Austin and Travis County, blamed "a lack of coordination in disseminating messages to the public." 

It was the costliest natural disaster in that state's history. Two out of three Texans lost power at some point during the storm, according to one survey.  

That same year New York City officials detailed problems with alerts when Hurricane Ida caused 91 deaths across nine states. 

"These WEAS (wireless alerts), state of emergency declaration, and travel ban came too late," task force members wrote. They called for emergency officials to "reach New Yorkers earlier and alert them to the severity of a storm." 

In December 2021, when the Marshall Fire tore through the Boulder area in Colorado, some residents got emergency alerts too late; others not at all.  

It was the state's most destructive wildfire, and in an after-action report, state and local officials said they need to work on "decision-making agreements" and "procedures to streamline approval process" for alert and warning activation. 

And after a "generational" snowstorm paralyzed Buffalo, New York, in December 2022, killing 31 residents, an after-action report conducted by New York University found "many people remained uninformed despite travel bans and stay-at-home orders." 

"The city relied heavily on television and radio announcements and non-specific warnings, and not enough residents had enrolled in text message alert systems," the report noted.  

FEMA reacts to alert delays  

CBS News shared the results of the investigation with current FEMA Administrator Deanne Criswell. 

"We have to focus our efforts on reaching out to communities," Criswell said. "We have a lot of turnover within our emergency management community and these are perishable skills, and we have to focus our efforts on reaching out to communities and get them the understanding and the comfort level with using this to be able to get that message out there." 

Criswell said there is always more work to do. 

"We are committed to continuing to work with communities across the nation to help them feel comfortable and confident in their skills to properly alert those that are in harm's way." 

FEMA Administrator Deanne Criswell on steps to improve emergency alerts 04:17

FEMA requires a two-hour online course for the people who send out alerts. Much of it is focused on the technical aspects of alerting, not the decision-making. CBS News asked if more training was needed to focus on how and when emergency managers make these decisions. Criswell said she would consider changing FEMA's standards. 

"Maybe we need to create a more hands-on follow-up mandatory training that is all about implementing and using the system," she said. "I'll take that back [to Washington, D.C.]"  

Jessica Tunis, the Santa Rosa woman who lost her mother in the Nuns-Tubbs fire, is pushing for a specific national policy on alerting. 

"I think maybe a national standard," Criswell responded. "I would not want to mandate something across everybody in this case. But I want to recognize the fact that every jurisdiction has their own unique circumstance. It's helping jurisdictions understand what the capabilities of the tools are." 

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