Critical county emergency agencies keep struggling to warn residents effectively during fast moving disasters like wildfires, despite years of complaints from residents and a grand jury report telling them there’s room to improve. 

This month’s Coastal Fire was no different. 

Mike Selvidge was in Indianapolis when he got the text that a fire was burning in the Aliso and Woods Canyon Wilderness Park behind his house in Laguna Niguel, where his wife Annalisa and their daughters Lauren and Kate were at. 

“I called Annalisa and I asked if she saw a fire in the canyon, she didn’t know about it yet,” Selvidge said in an interview with Voice of OC. 

Both parents were signed up for AlertOC, the county’s main emergency notification system, which they signed up for after another fire in the area back in 2018 made them realize how close their house was to a burn area. 

But they didn’t hear about it from there. 

Mike got a notice from the city of Laguna Beach, whose alerts he’d signed up for because their house sat right on the border of the two cities. 

While Mike couldn’t remember what time the message came in at, Laguna Beach officials registered their first alert at 3:26 p.m. Wednesday afternoon, nearly 20 minutes before the OC Fire Authority announced they were responding to a fire via Twitter. 

“I wanted to see how close it was. I took my girls and we went to Seaview Park. That’s when we saw it burning,” Annalisa said. “The wind whipped up and we saw it jump to our side of the hill, I told the girls let’s go grab our go bags and head out.” 

Annalisa said she went and let her neighbors around her know about the oncoming fire before she left with the kids. 

By the time the sheriff’s department began making door to door notifications to evacuate on her street around an hour later, the only reason she knew was because her Ring doorbell showed video of them knocking.

After the fire jumped the ridge, it blew through the upper levels of the Coronado Pointe neighborhood along the side of the hill, burning 20 homes to the ground and damaging another 11 just a couple streets away from the Selvidges. 

According to Carrie Braun, spokesperson for the Orange County Sheriff’s department, the deputies began notifying Laguna Niguel residents near the fire to evacuate at 3:45 p.m., a decision that came after OCFA firefighters told the sheriffs they needed to begin moving people out of the houses at 3:40 p.m.

But the sheriffs and OCFA didn’t send out any messaging or alerts – beyond door to door stops – on who needed to evacuate until an hour later with a tweet on the sheriffs’ Laguna Niguel account encouraging residents “near Pacific Island Drive and Coronado Pointe,” to evacuate. 

Twenty minutes later, according to records, they used their disaster messaging system AlertOC for the first time. 

Waiting on AlertOC

Using AlertOC, the county can send out both text messages and Wireless Emergency Alerts, or WEAs, which function like an Amber Alert. Text messages only work for those who’ve signed up for the service ahead of time with addresses in the affected area. 

Braun said it’s impossible to know how many people received the WEA alert for the evacuation, but that 63 people of the 900 homes evacuated received a text alert about the fire. 

When asked why the sheriff’s department didn’t send out any messaging simultaneously when they began evacuations, Braun said they were just focused on the door to doors. 

By the time the sheriffs used the Alert OC system to send out an emergency alert, the city of Laguna Beach had already sent three alerts to all its enrolled residents, informing them of the fire, where it was moving, and opening a voluntary evacuation for the Balboa Nyes neighborhood that was near the canyon. 

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But there are also some questions over how effective the AlertOC system was alerting residents caught up in the fire. 

Carin Whitaker, a Laguna Niguel resident who was in the voluntary evacuation zone, said that even though she signed up for AlertOC she was never told she was inside an evacuation zone. 

“The way I found out about it was from Twitter,” Whitaker said in an interview with Voice of OC. “It should’ve been an emergency message to anyone in the area and it shouldn’t just be people who live here, it should be anyone who shows their cell phone location is up here.” 

Laguna Niguel City Council candidate Stephanie Oddo came out to this week’s county supervisors meeting, and said she’d heard from at least two residents who were enrolled in the program that had to evacuate and they never got an alert, asking for supervisors to review the system’s effectiveness. 

“A neighbor who was evacuated spoke with myself and public safety personnel, the couple informed us they didn’t receive the alert,” Oddo said. “Public safety personnel confirmed they’d heard similar thoughts.” 

County supervisor Lisa Bartlett, whose district holds the city of Laguna Niguel, said they would talk more about AlertOC’s effectiveness at an upcoming forum for residents affected by the Coastal Fire, and added that county staff would perform “checks and balances,” on the system. 

The county pays $458,000 a year for the AlertOC system to Everbridge Inc., a software company that built and manages the alert system. In addition to the base price, the county also spends another $239,000 a year marketing the system. 

This isn’t the first time the AlertOC system’s accuracy has been questioned. 

A grand jury report following the Canyon 2 Wildfire that was released in 2019 found that Everbridge was using mapping data that was five years out of date, and as a result many newer addresses in south Orange County were left out of the alerts. 

In their response to that grand jury report, the Sheriffs Department confirmed that officials hold bi-weekly meetings with Everbridge and get immediate updates when the system is down, but didn’t address the question of why the newer neighborhoods were left out. 

Noah Biesiada is a Voice of OC reporter and corps member with Report for America, a GroundTruth initiative. Contact him at nbiesiada@voiceofoc.org or on Twitter @NBiesiada.

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