The Technology Behind Fighting California’s Fires & Other Disasters

Xconomy San Francisco — 

As wildfires continued to burn across the length of California this month, Gov. Jerry Brown urged residents to stay on the alert and warned that the cost of fighting the climate-driven blazes will continue to strain future state budgets.

Residents of the three Northern California counties hardest hit by wildfires last year have already learned the importance of tracking the conflagrations that can raze entire neighborhoods—and they’ve sought help from technology.

In Sonoma County, sign-ups to a mass alert system operated by critical event management company Everbridge rose from 20,000 to 275,000 during the peak of the wildfire crisis in October 2017, the Burlington, MA-based company says. The surge echoed across the San Francisco Bay Area, where a total of 605,336 residents opted into the warning system, which is free for individuals. The paying customers for Everbridge’s subscription software are the public agencies and businesses that need to send out alerts.

San Francisco, while untouched by the fires themselves, suffered from the eye-stinging smoke funneling out from the North Bay fires, and 20,000 new residents registered with the Everbridge-operated network AlertSF within a few days in 2017, says Francis Zamora, director of external affairs for the San Francisco Department of Emergency Management. The city recently attained 100,000 signups, or 12 percent of the population. In other big cities, that figure can be as low as 2 to 5 percent, he says. In Sonoma County, the figure rose to 64 percent after the 2017 fires, according to Everbridge (NASDAQ: EVBG).

If anything can be seen as a silver lining in the devastating fires of this year and last in California, the increased engagement of an alarmed public with tech-enabled government communication channels may qualify.

Everbridge’s outreach system is one of the technological means that San Francisco agencies use to send targeted warnings and instructions to residents—neighborhood by neighborhood—about fire, floods, air quality problems, earthquakes, and other events that could pose threats to health and safety, Zamora says. It’s among a number of technology companies that San Francisco taps as part of its total emergency response system.

At the height of a critical event, the city sends updates three times a day via AlertSF, and then continues to use that conduit for any red alerts, Zamora says. For less urgent messages, the city uses Twitter (@SF_Emergency) and Nextdoor, the social media network where people can only sign up for their particular neighborhood’s group. That makes Nextdoor the ideal channel for targeted bulletins on hyperlocal events, he says.

Not to say that San Francisco is so dependent on its signature technology sector that it would be helpless if the Internet blinked off or power systems failed, Zamora says. The city still maintains 114 sirens whose history dates back to their role as air raid sirens in World War II and during the Cold War, he says. Officials can still phone traditional media outlets, of course. And even in recent years, the city has sent police officers or firefighters into neighborhoods when necessary “to tell people what’s going on,” Zamora says.

“We wouldn’t be an emergency management agency if we didn’t have redundancy,” Zamora says.

But crisis response technology can lead to empowering possibilities and efficiencies, such as faster communication, and coordination with neighboring cities and counties.

Everbridge counts a total of 3,800 business, government, and organizational customers, most in the United States. In California they include Facebook (NASDAQ: FB), NVIDIA (NASDAQ: NVDA), Sutter Health, and the San Francisco International Airport, as well as 54 of California’s 58 counties. Among them are Los Angeles, Alameda, Orange, Lake, Napa, and Ventura counties, in addition to the city and county of San Francisco.

Officials across the fire-affected counties have been promoting Everbridge’s alert system, urging residents to text their ZIP Codes to 888-777, the sign-up number Everbridge maintains so it can send out emergency alerts and messages from government agencies to residents’ mobile devices. Everbridge’s CTO Imad Mouline says the company never sells the personal data it collects.

AlertSF, which is San Francisco’s branded version of the widely used alert system, allows city residents to create online accounts where they can list any special needs they have, such as a reliance on an oxygen supply or on life-sustaining equipment powered by electricity, Mouline says. Public agencies can then send tailored messages to those people, and even gauge when they might need to be transported from their homes, he says.

Everbridge maintains integrations with a broad range of other tech services such as AccuWeather, Service Now, and Twitter (NYSE: TWTR). One result, Zamora says, is that San Francisco’s watch officers, who keep tabs on potential emergencies 24 hours a day, can rapidly broadcast Twitter alerts without having to take the time to sign on separately to the social media site.

San Francisco’s emergency management department also uses the broader Everbridge platform for tasks that involve coordination within the community of city employees. For example, news of an apartment house fire would trigger automated calls to a pre-designated set of workers with the skills required to deal with it, Zamora says. That would include not only firefighters, but also animal control officers who could take the pets of displaced tenants to stay in shelters if necessary until the residents can retrieve them, he says.

“Every city employee is a disaster service worker,” Zamora says. The Everbridge system can also be used to quickly summon San Francisco firefighters to come to the aid of other counties battling big fires, he says.

Business customers use the same automated call-out mechanisms to protect their data if their buildings are threatened by fire or other disruptions, says Everbridge’s Mouline. Everbridge is constantly on the lookout for such threats, and when detected, they trigger protocols to muster IT personnel, carry out data backups, and shift computing to other data centers when needed, he says.

Everbridge estimates that the potential global market for all such critical event management services was $18.3 billion in 2015, and anticipates the market will reach $41.1 billion in 2020, according to its annual report filed in March. Most of Everbridge’s revenue so far, however, has come from its mass emergency notification service. The company projects that the total market for mass notification features will grow to more than $4 billion by 2020. Everbridge says its main competitors in that arena include Burlington, MA-based Nuance Communications, Ormond Beach, FL-based OnSolve, and the Canadian firm BlackBerry.

The demand for technology-based emergency management services has surged due to the rise in severe weather conditions, terrorist attacks, data breaches, active shooter assaults, and other catastrophes, Everbridge says in its annual report. But the demand is also being spurred by technology itself—more connected devices are collecting more data, and people are constantly connected via mobile devices. So rapid communication can potentially save more lives and livelihoods, the company says.

Everbridge has been concentrating on growing its customer base and expanding outside the United States. The company says its revenue has increased by more than 30 percent each year since 2015, to reach $104.4 million in 2017, when Everbridge reported a net loss of $19.3 million. Seeking to grow its international customer base, Everbridge has been making acquisitions, including a $33.6 million bid in February for Norwegian rival Unified Messaging Systems (UMS). The companies announced in April that the deal had closed.

Zamora says Everbridge’s acquisition in 2015 of San Francisco-based Nixle spurred his agency to bring the company on to manage its AlertSF channel. Nixle allowed residents to sign up in seconds with a text message rather than by going online, he says.

In addition to Everbridge, Zamora says San Francisco uses a virtual emergency operations center, or WebEOC, and makes use of a number of other technology tools, including:

—the ArcGIS mapping and analytics software from Redlands, CA-based ESRI.

—Los Angeles, CA-based ReddiNet’s communications network linking hospitals and other healthcare providers with each other and with law enforcement.

—Denver, CO-based Nusura’s product Simulation Deck, which allows emergency management teams to run realistic disaster-response drills in a simulated Internet environment where they can send messages via social media that are only seen by the participants in the exercise.

Zamora says San Francisco’s emergency management agency is also involved in a pilot project with One Concern, a startup founded by former Stanford students that uses artificial intelligence to predict which parts of a city will be most damaged by earthquakes and other natural disasters.

Everbridge’s Mouline says planning is the most important element in an effective disaster response. To help keep their employees safe and their operations running, he says, businesses can store information not only about the physical locations where staffers usually work, but also about the areas they drive through to get there, where their children go to school, where their relatives live, and their itineraries when they travel. These become critical regions to keep an eye on for potential dangers, in addition to the fixed workplaces of the business, he says.

Mouline acknowledges that most technology-based emergency management tools rely on a functioning Internet or telecommunications channels to do any good. Everbridge copes with possible disruptions of service by using multiple routes to get messages to endangered residents, businesses, and emergency response teams. The company uses texts, push notifications, e-mails, voice messages, landlines, FAX, and other means, he says.

“In most cases, something will break,” Mouline says. But unless there’s a breakdown of all the communications infrastructure, he says, chances are that one of the messages will get through. “We haven’t seen it happen yet that everything is broken.”

Wildfire photo credit: Depositphotos; Copyright: Binty