When hazy air spread across the San Francisco Bay Area in mid-September, county officials began the process of sending out emergency alerts to thousands of cell phones, landlines, and emails kept on record. They informed residents that air quality reached hazardous levels for people with respiratory diseases, but thousands of Bay Area residents who don’t speak English at home did not receive alerts in their native language for days.
The Bay Area is one of the most diverse regions in California. More than 3.2 million people speak a language other than English at home, according to an El Tímpano analysis of U.S. Census data. Yet our analysis found that at least 27% of them do not have access to emergency alerts in their native language.
A state-wide examination by El Tímpano found that only 21 out of California’s 58 counties provide emergency alerts in languages other than English, in a state that is home to the highest immigrant population in the country.
As wildfire season continues to disrupt life in Northern California, this gap leaves people at risk of not receiving possibly life-saving information.
Of the Bay Area’s nine counties, Alameda County, where 46% of the population speaks a language other than English at home, does not offer alerts in languages other than English at all. Neither does Solano County, where nearly 30% of residents speak a language other than English at home. Combined, that leaves more than 882,100 people, or one in ten Bay Area residents, without access to alerts in their native language.
San Francisco County—where 42.7% of residents speak a language other than English at home—allows users to choose from seven languages to set as their preferred language when receiving alerts. But during the most recent hazardous air event that took place between Sept.19-22, alerts were sent in English for three days, until Sept. 22, when an alert went out in four different languages, English, Spanish, Chinese, and Tagalog—leaving out Russian and Vietnamese.
For years, members of Faith in Action East Bay, a faith-based nonprofit advocacy organization, have heard from immigrant residents that they feel unprepared to handle possible emergencies and disasters, in part because there are many other immediate issues immigrants have to face.
“[Disasters] could hit us any time,” says Alba Hernandez, Community Organizer at Faith in Action East Bay, “but folks don’t have time to think about that.” This is why, she adds, county officials need to do more to build trust and reach the community where they are and in their own language.
The Alameda County Sheriff’s Department, which operates the county’s Office of Emergency Services, did not respond to El Tímpano’s multiple requests for comment. Neither did Solano County officials.
Disasters that sparked change in Sonoma County
Sonoma County stands apart from most other Bay Area counties when it comes to improving language access during times of emergency. Many area officials tell El Tímpano that is because the county has been repeatedly hit by deadly disasters since 2017 that have forced a reckoning.
“In 2017, the county’s communication during disaster was grossly inadequate, both in English and Spanish,” says Jeanette Pantoja, director of the Sonoma County COAD, a collective of organizations that existed before the fire, but was mostly inactive until the county felt the consequences of Tubbs, a 2017 wildfire during which community organizers and bilingual first responders worked as translators on top of their other responsibilities.
“Very few people received alerts about the fire, and wherever people went to seek emergency services and recovery services, language access was a huge challenge,” Pantoja says.
Now the COAD (Community Organizations Active in Disaster) serves as a conduit between the community and county officials. When a disaster hits, a member of the COAD is a part of the county’s disaster response, bringing a community perspective so that county officials know where and how to reach people.
“We’re bringing concerns that our organizations are hearing about on the ground from [the] community and from participants of other programs to [the] government so that they’re making more informed decisions that don’t leave anybody out,” says Alma Bowen, founder and executive director of Nuestra Comunidad, a Sonoma County nonprofit that advocates for community safety.
The organizations often come together to host disaster preparedness events, like an August “Train the Trainer” session that welcomed Spanish-speaking community leaders to learn how to prepare their communities for disaster.
The Sonoma County COAD and county officials have also built out an emergency alert system that is designed to reach people in both English and Spanish within minutes after a disaster is declared.
The process didn’t happen overnight, but throughout 2020, Sam Wallis, community alert and warning system manager for Sonoma County, and Jorge Rodriguez, Wallis’s partner at the time, recorded audio clips inside a closet in both English and Spanish that could be sent out to Sonoma County residents via voice mail in case of an emergency:
Each of the 1,400 clips is customized by zone and type of emergency and can now be sent at the push of a button along with text and email emergency alerts that have been pre-written in English and Spanish.
Wallis jokes that his colleagues were both “astonished and horrified,” at how much time and dedication went into recording each clip.
“I hate to say it, but at the time, Tubbs appeared to us to be a once-in-a-lifetime incident,” Wallis says. “[The Kinkade wildfire] really hammered home that, oh my gosh, this is not a once-in-a-lifetime incident. This is something that’s going to be a recurring thing.”
How technology stands in the way
In many cases, even signing up for emergency alerts can be a challenge for non-English speakers, especially if they struggle with technology. Though most cell phones will receive an emergency alert through the federally-run Wireless Emergency Alerts system, most county-run emergency alert systems in California are opt-in only.
According to El Tímpano’s analysis, the vast majority of counties, including those in the Bay Area, require filling out an online form. In Alameda County, for example, to sign up to receive emergency alerts you must create an online account, which involves submitting an email address and a street address, creating a password, and answering a security question. While nearly 88% of counties state-wide require an email address to sign up for alerts, El Tímpano has found that many Latino and Mayan immigrants in the Bay Area do not have computers at home, access to the internet, or may not have an email address at all.
A state-wide alerting system does not exist in California. That is because counties need to be able to address their emergencies in a localized way, says Diana Crofts-Pelayo, assistant director of crisis communication and public affairs at the California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services. “We want local governments, local jurisdictions to do the outreach they think is necessary for their hyper-specific needs,” she says.
To support those efforts, in 2019, the Governor’s office formed Listos California, an initiative to reach the state’s most vulnerable communities and prepare them for disaster. Listos California collaborates with community organizations to try to reach people and encourage them to opt-in to receive emergency alerts, even if the alerts aren’t in the person’s native language.
In many cases, Crofts-Pelayo says, an individual may not know emergency alerting systems are available to them, or suspect that the government may use their information to locate them if they are undocumented.
The lack of accurate translation services
Many of the language access issues across the state stem from the lack of translators involved in the alert-making process. In most California counties, the sheriff or another appointed official determines the type of emergency and a team begins writing alerts for text and email, a process that takes precious time. Alerts will also be prepared for broadcast via radio and tv. Across most of the state, this process takes place in English.
Everbridge, one of the most popular emergency alert platforms utilized by emergency departments across the country, offers its own translating tool, but it is unclear how often it is utilized by county officials. Another widely used tool is Nixle, an emergency text messaging program powered by Everbridge. To subscribe, users can text their zip code to 888777. By default, subscribers have the option to select Spanish as their preferred language, but that does not guarantee that they will ultimately receive those alerts in Spanish.
“The agency must send the alert in Spanish by using our automatic translation tool or manually entering the message in Spanish,” Jim Gatta, director of communications and public relations at Everbridge, tells El Tímpano in an emailed statement. If no one on the sending side is there to provide the alert in Spanish, Nixle subscribers will receive the alert in English.
More than half of California counties that offer instructions for how to sign up for alerts in Spanish rely on a Google Translate widget at the top of the page to translate their web pages. But Hernandez of Faith in Action East Bay says this is an inadequate solution for non-English speakers who struggle with technology. The widget at the top of the page, she adds, “says ‘language’ only, it doesn’t say ‘idioma.’ So how do people know that ‘language’ means that you can choose your own idioma there?”
Some county officials worry about the accuracy of translating apps, and so don’t send alerts in other languages until they find a human translator. Sacramento County, for example, has yet to try its translating tool, Microsoft Translate, due to uncertainty about its accuracy.
“We do not want to send confusing or inaccurate message[s] to our public,” Jason D’Alessio, Sacramento County’s assistant emergency operations coordinator, said in an emailed statement. “We are currently working on developing multiple message templates and having them translated into nine different languages and American Sign Language.”
Those translations won’t be completed until Spring 2024, D’Alessio says, but in the meantime, they assign bilingual staff to assist with translation during emergencies. While counties take steps to improve language access, organizations like Listos California encourage everyone to sign up for emergency alerts. Receiving them in any language is better than not receiving them at all.
With reporting by Ximena Loeza.
This piece was updated on Oct. 26 to add new information shared by Sacramento County about how staff aids in translation during emergencies.