Press Releases


“Disconnected: Understanding Communication System Failures During Disasters”
2020 Rebuild NorthBay Foundation Scholar in Residence Study by Scott Adams, MPA

Sonoma, CA – October 30, 2020 In 2020, Rebuild NorthBay launched a Scholar in Residence program to foster research in disaster preparedness, response, and resiliency. Our first scholar, Scott Adams, has successfully published his capstone thesis to complete his Masters in Public Policy at the Goldman School of Policy at UC Berkeley:  “Disconnected: Understanding Communication System Failures During Disasters which examines the challenges that a variety of communications systems face during disasters and the nexus between the communications and power grids. The report offers a number of recommendations which should be implemented to help build more resilient and redundant means of communications.

Executive Summary
In our technology-dependent world, communications systems are our lifelines. We count on them for situational awareness, emergency alerts and warnings, disaster response, vital information, social connectedness, work, education and healthcare.

Due to climate change, California has experienced an increasing number of large-scale disasters over the last two decades. During recent disasters, our communications systems, which are highly reliable and dependable in normal conditions, have failed. These failures compromise situational awareness, impact alert and warnings, impede vital communications between multiple stakeholders, and can lead to unnecessary loss of life and other social harms. Too little is understood about what causes these failures, who is responsible for them, and how to fix them. Leaders at all levels must work together to increase the resilience of our communications systems and promote redundant means of communications for use during inevitable future disasters.

Communication systems are defined as systems through which entities and individuals send and receive information. They include wireless, wireline and landline phone networks; and alert and warning systems.

Communication networks consist of tens of thousands of components, or facilities, that require power to operate. These networks fail during disasters when power is lost due to infrastructure damage; large segments of the power grid are de-energized during Public Safety Power Shutoffs (PSPS); or due to the lack of adequate backup power at communications network facilities and end user premises. Congestion contributes to failures when portions of a network go down and diminish its capacity to handle increased call volumes during emergencies.

Alert and warning system failures commonly result from the use of alerting systems with limited capabilities; or a lack of training and authorization on the Federal Emergency Agency’s (FEMA) Integrated Public Alert and Warning System (IPAWS). Local warning systems and social media platforms require individuals to opt-in to receive alerts and cater to only the most information-hungry individuals. Their effectiveness is limited by low subscriber numbers. IPAWS is a more robust system that enables message transmission through multiple pathways to numerous redundant devices. IPAWS allows authorities to target all individuals in an area, using enhanced geo-fencing capabilities, without requiring that residents opt-in. A relatively small percentage of California entities are authorized on this system, and some who are, don’t know how to use it, or choose not to.


Rebuild Northbay Foundation was born out of the devastating fire disaster of October 2017 and represents  Napa, Sonoma, Lake and Mendocino counties. The foundation is led by business, community, health, education, and environmental leaders brought together to rebuild back better, safer, greener and faster. We are committed to the long term rebuilding of our region as a more sustainable and resilient community through advocacy, coordination, and economic development.

For more information, please contact RNBF’s Executive Director Jennifer Gray Thompson.

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