A San Mateo County civil grand jury reported on Monday that only 1 in 10 county residents has signed up for emergency text alerts and suggests that isn’t good enough. The report came amid a pandemic and raging fires, when communication between authorities and the community is paramount.

Without a high subscription rate for county Office of Emergency Services alerts, many residents are left uninformed and vulnerable to emergencies like wildfires, the grand jury notes. Thirty-eight percent of Half Moon Bay residents have opted into the text alerts, but fewer than 7 percent of residents in unincorporated areas have done so.

The grand jury report suggests two possible explanations for the county’s low enrollment: residents must “opt in” to the alert system, and the alerts are currently only sent in English and Spanish in spite of San Mateo County’s diverse language portfolio.

In 2018, the California Legislature recognized the limitation of an opt-in enrollment program for emergency alerts. Counties in California were given access to the customer records of public utilities for the purpose of enrolling them into these emergency alert systems, as long as residents had the ability to “opt out,” the report reads.

In light of this legislation, San Mateo County has taken steps toward increasing enrollment. The county was able to access E-911 data, landline phone numbers obtained from White Pages and Yellow Pages telephone records to enroll a total of 46 percent of the county’s population in the SMC Alerts system. Santa Clara County used the same information to enroll 51 percent of its population.

The county also attempted to access public utility and mobile phone carrier data. However, officials decided not to use any public utility data to augment the database because of the presence of multifamily dwellings and apartments where a landlord living outside of the county may be the utility contact. Additionally, mobile phone carriers refused to cooperate with the county, leaving them without access to mobile phone data.

While roadblocks to further enrollment exist, other counties have found ways to bypass these. Sonoma County was able to enroll more than 100,000 residents using water utility data, and it added another 300,000 residents by purchasing customer records from AT&T and Frontier Communications. It is also currently negotiating with PG&E to access those customer records “to achieve what they hope will be 90 percent-plus coverage of the residents of their county,” according to the report.

The grand jury said it didn’t know why San Mateo County has chosen not to pursue negotiations with mobile phone carriers or seek data from public utility records to increase emergency alert enrollment when nearby counties have done so.

The report also highlights the Dymally-Alatorre Bilingual Services Act, which requires local agencies to translate documents explaining available services for non-English-speaking people if they make up more than 5 percent of the agency’s population. It also mandates that local agencies employ a “sufficient number of qualified bilingual staff in public contact positions.”

Currently, SMC Emergency Alerts and information for enrollment are only available in English and Spanish. More than 5 percent of local residents speak Chinese and Tagalog at home, and yet there are currently no plans to translate materials or alerts into either of those languages, according to the report.

“Even if not technically required by the Act, OES could achieve higher enrolled SMC numbers by meeting their residents’ language needs,” the report notes.

The report concludes by recommending the Office of Emergency Services publish percentages of

SMC Alert enrollment data by city and town on their website. It also recommends it further investigate access to mobile phone carrier data and translate enrollment materials and alerts into all languages spoken by more than 5 percent of the population.

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