Senators Dianne Feinstein and Kamala Harris are voicing their concerns about the federal Wireless Emergency Alert system currently in place for disaster warnings. They're criticizing the tool for its shortcomings and for its potential to create mass panic, says the Chron. Senators Feinstein and Harris sent a letter to the Federal Communications Commission describing their issues with WEA, writing, "In a crisis like this, receiving a timely emergency alert on your mobile phone can be the difference between life and death ... These emergency services are caught in a bind between notifying individuals in imminent danger and risking mass panic. As a result, these services are compelled to rely on emergency messaging systems with far less reach and far less capacity."
In the early hours before wildfires broke out across Northern California, Sonoma County officials were faced with the decision of whether they should warn residents of Sonoma County of the impending fires through the mobile alert system, or if they should resort to other means of disseminating those warnings. Ultimately, county officials would opt for the latter, worried that sending out a large warning blast like that would result in panic and congested roads full of cars that could cause delays for real evacuees or first responders.
Since the system is currently unable to target specific areas where such warnings would be most relevant, officials are forced into an "all-or-nothing" stance while deciding whether to utilize it either everybody gets an alert through the system, or nobody does. This forces city and county officials to resort to other methods of warning residents of emergency situations. For example, the city of Berkeley has an opt-in warning system, AC Alert, which they launched this past July. According to the system's website, it serves to "share emergency information and instructions through phone calls, emails, text messages and TTY/TDD messages." The Berkeley Police Department, along with the Oakland PD, also use a service called Nixle, which connects municipal services and "enables real-time, two-way communication through text, email, voice messages, social media, and the Nixle mobile app," per their website. Both of these systems and the many more like them are opt-in only, meaning residents have to sign up for the warnings and such themselves.
The FCC has addressed these issues regarding targeted warnings in the past, as the Chron mentions that they passed legislation back in September of last year requiring cell service providers to allow more targeted communications for early warning systems. They have yet to implement any actual changes in that regard, though.
While calling for a better system in their letter, KQED mentions that both the Senators also asked for statistics regarding the WEA and its effectiveness in helping first responders during other recent natural disasters like Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Jose.