In the wake of widespread cellphone service breakdowns during calamitous California wildfires, U.S. Reps. Jared Huffman and Mike Thompson are backing legislation that would allow states to require wireless telephone companies to upgrade their systems to be usable during fires and other natural disasters.
Huffman of San Rafael and Thompson of St. Helena are among the 15 co-sponsors of a bill by a House Democratic colleague, Rep. Anna Eshoo of Palo Alto, that would specifically empower states to require the wireless companies to install equipment like fiber cables with fire-resistant coating that can withstand disasters.
During the infernos that ravaged the North Coast in 2017 and 2018, Huffman said in a statement, "it was clear that there was room for improvement in how we are using communications networks to share vital information, including evacuation orders and other safety warnings, with impacted individuals."
California's Office of Emergency Services said 341 cell sites were offline during the October 2017 wildfires and 489 cell sites were down during the Camp and Woolsey fires last year, preventing wireless users in those areas from being able to call 911, receive an emergency alert or use their cellphones to find the safest evacuation route, Huffman said.
Underscoring the importance of wireless phone service, the Federal Communications Commission reported that 81 percent of the 27 million 911 calls made last year were on cellular devices, he said.
About half of the alerts sent out by Sonoma County officials during the Tubbs fire of 2017 never made it to the telephone numbers in the county's database because of incapacitated cellphone towers and downed utility lines, county officials said.
That problem was compounded by an outdated understanding of the latest wireless alert technology that led to a decision by county officials not to trigger Amber Alert-style warnings for fear of causing undue panic among people not in harm's way.
Officials chose instead to rely on opt-in platforms, like Nixle and SoCo Alerts, to warn residents of the fast-moving fire that spread from Calistoga to Santa Rosa.
State Sen. Mike McGuire, D-Healdsburg, authored SB 670, a state bill that would require telecommunications services to notify the Office of Emergency Services within 60 minutes of discovery of an outage that limits their customers' ability to make 911 calls or receive emergency notifications.
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