Wine Country fires: Text alerts come in handy amid spotty phone, internet service

Should you stay or should you go? If you’re in the areas affected by the Wine Country fires, chances are you’re scouring Facebook, Twitter and other online sources for information about evacuation orders and other instructions from your local officials.

But what if the wireless connection through which you access the internet is spotty? Many in the affected areas have signed up for text alerts from Nixle, a company with a Bay Area presence whose technology is helping get the word out.

Nixle, which used to be based in San Francisco shortly after its founding in California a decade ago but was bought by an East Coast company, Everbridge, in 2015, helps state and local communities share critical information during disasters. It can send messages via text, voice, emails or on the web. If you don’t have cell service but have Wi-Fi, you can access it.

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Officials use Nixle to send out information about “road closures, evacuations, where to go, whether people should boil water, air quality alerts,” said Joel Rosen, chief marketing officer for Boston-based Everbridge, in a phone interview Tuesday. “It can send alerts about where fire is spreading, which is very important.”

It helped out Ginette Tennant, a Napa resident who lost power and wireless service Monday.

“It was great that we were able to at least get those updates via Nixle,” she said Tuesday. “That was pretty much all we had. We had no access to the TV to get the news for updates.”

The home Tennant shares with her husband and children was spared by the fires, but she has friends who live just a couple of miles away who lost their homes.

Signing up to receive alerts on Nixle is simple. People can text 888-777, enter their ZIP code, and receive immediate confirmation that they’re signed up.

Before the Wine Country fires, about 300,000 people in the affected areas — Napa, Sonoma, Lake, Mendocino counties — had signed up for Nixle, according to Rosen. Solano County has now been affected by the fires as well.

“In the last 24 to 36 hours, 150,000 more people have opted in,” he said. “Yesterday, we had 15,000 new opt-ins every hour.”

About 7,500 public agencies nationwide use Nixle, whose customers are law enforcement agencies, cities, counties and more. Combined with Everbridge, its parent company, the two companies reach about 200 countries and territories, and is also used by other public agencies, companies and hospitals.

Their software systems — which provide underlying platforms at many public agencies and work with multiple SMS providers — were used during a major event in the Bay Area, Super Bowl 50, last year.

And their systems were most recently used in another major disaster: to send about 17 million messages to most of Florida during Hurricane Irma over the summer.


Photo: A boat travels along the Napa River as the hills illuminate the surrounding area during the Atlas Peak Fire in Napa, Calif. on Monday, Oct. 9, 2017. (Jose Carlos Fajardo/Bay Area News Group)


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