As wildfires rage in southern California, Thomas Cova, director of the Center for Natural and Technological Disasters at the University of Utah, said he finds the low number of fire related fatalities to be impressive.
“It begs the questions of how did they do it?” Cova said. “How can they stay ahead of such a terrifying fire, moving at such an incredible rate of spread, at night, through these dense communities? Some hypothesis that are not just mine, but in general include that cell phones are making things go smoother.”
Cell phones provide aid because they allow people to quickly communicate with each other. Cova said they also provide a way to alert large groups of people to an emergency.
One example of how cell phones alert a large group is through the wireless emergency alert system. This is the system used for Amber Alerts, when an attention signal emits to make people aware of a missing child. But now it is being used to send out other emergency alerts.
There are many similarities between the Tubbs fire in northern California that happened earlier this year and the Thomas fire now burning in southern California. One significant difference between the two said Cova, is the use of the emergency alert system.
“I’m sure that the northern California people, Sonoma Country, are looking at southern California and seeing that using the system did not result in mass panic and pandemonium and traffic jams and everything that they thought,” Cova said. “In fact, it ended up being a great outcome.”
Using the alert system for fire warnings is relatively new. Cova is not aware of any instances of the alert system being used in Utah. He believes the system could be useful here, especially if emergency management personnel can move past the fear that alerting too many people will cause mass panic.