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California's emergency system was supposed to warn people about the fire. It didn't

Towers carrying electrical lines are shown Aug. 30, 2007 in South San Francisco, California.
Towers carrying electrical lines are shown Aug. 30, 2007 in South San Francisco, California.
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

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Napa resident Emily Cocks and her husband woke up to the sound of crackling brush shortly after midnight Monday. 

They looked out the window and saw flames blanketing Atlas Peak above their home. They grabbed their cats, some clothes and got out.

There was no warning. 

"Just thankful that we woke up when we did. If we'd woken up two hours later... we wouldn't have even had time to grab a pair of pants. We would have just had to run out."

Cocks is safe, but her home is gone.

The emergency alert system that was designed to warn people about wildfires did not work.

Brad Alexander, a spokesman at the California Office of Emergency Services, spoke to A Martinez about the emergency alert system in place for the state.

"The emergency alert system has a uniform approach," Alexander explained  "In that, every disaster can have a unique profile in how the alerting system works."

How does the system work?

We have a multi-hazard approach [and] it's up to emergency managers at local level — typically the Sheriffs office...using those systems [to send the alert].

It's an integrated system where [emergency managers] basically make a selection of the different services or techniques they want to use. Cell towers, the internet, broadcasters like yourself...

As far as who gets these alerts goes, it's a mixed bag.

"It's a highway with different lanes of traffic. Some of those lanes are opt-in and some of those lanes you are in by default, by living in an area or paying taxes...or having a registered address or registered cell phone with a carrier."

Having a registered cell phone is why mobile service is one of the most important components of the emergency alert service. It also may be the reason so many Napa county residents did not receive any kind of alert. According to officials, many cell towers were burnt down and destroyed in the fire. 

For online alerts, you can sign up at either or you can go to Nixle and they have the ability to text. You provide your zip code and you can get signed up automatically for those agencies in your area.

What happens if cell towers fail?

"When a cell tower goes down, it raises a lot of red flags and staff are deployed immediately to either do repairs or build a new one or potentially set up a mobile system which is what we've done in several cases for these wildfires, especially in the wine country...

These mobile systems are what we call C.O.W.s. It's a funny name but it stands for Cell Towers on Wheels or Cellular on Wheels. Basically, you can hook it up to the back of a large vehicle and... truck it into the fire zone and that pops up a cell signal or radio bounce tower for first responders."

Where do I turn for information if an alert fails?

First, there's radio:

"You should have a radio on hand to listen to AM & FM stations. A lot of the notices go out on those channels, too. Even when it's happening at an odd hour you have anchors or staff there who can push out messages."

You can turn to T.V. too, for updates.

To hear more about the emergency alert system and how it works, click the blue play button above.