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NOTEBOOK – One Good Read: The problems facing emergency alert systems


The Arizona Republic and USA Today dived deep into the Paradise, Calif., disaster, analyzing which communities across the western U.S. were most at risk of the next monster fire. At least one of their findings is relevant across the U.S.: Emergency alert systems were not well understood or accessible to residents in the hours and minutes before the Camp Fire destroyed the town. 

Butte County, where Paradise is located, had a wireless emergency alert system set up but had never tested it before the Camp Fire emergency. What they had was the CodeRED Automated Notification System — the same system Polk County, Iowa, uses to send notifications of fires, floods, evacuations and other real-time disaster updates. The system is opt-in-only for residents, and authorities in Butte County estimated only half of Paradise residents received alerts of the incoming fire. “All but 14 of more than 500 wireless emergency warnings issued in the 11-state [western] region over the past seven years were in English only,” the Arizona Republic reported. 

Many of the residents who were most traumatized by the disaster were the elderly or disabled, who were least likely to receive wireless emergency alerts, least likely to have emergency plans prepared, and more likely to refuse to leave home in an emergency. As of 2018, Iowa’s state government estimated people age 65 and older accounted for 16.4% of the total state population; in 2016, Iowa ranked 16th in the percentage of population age 65 and older in the U.S., according to the 
Iowa Department on Aging.

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