A San Mateo County civil grand jury investigation found that as of October 2019, only 10.6 percent of the county’s 765,000 residents had enrolled in SMC Alert, the county’s emergency alert system.

The grand jury released a report Monday, which found that the county’s subscription rate is lower than national averages of 12 to 16 percent. Rates vary across the county’s 20 cities, from 2.2 percent in East Palo Alto to 58.1 percent in Portola Valley. SMC Alert is run by the county’s Office of Emergency Services.

The low rates are likely due to the “opt-in” nature of the system and a lack of translation that may exclude some non-English speaking residents.

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues and wildfires rage around California, emergency alerts are more important than ever as public safety information could save lives.

One of the recommendations from the report is that SMC Alert shift away from its “opt-in” system, which requires residents to voluntarily register for notifications. Instead, an “opt-out” system would automatically enroll residents and give them the option to unsubscribe.

The grand jury also cited language barriers as a potential cause for low enrollment in some cities. Though approximately 9 percent of county residents speak Chinese and another 6.5 percent speak Tagalog, alerts are only sent in English and Spanish.

Daly City is an example where language barriers may impact enrollment as 66.4 percent of the city’s residents speak a language other than English at home. The city is the largest in the county, yet it has a 2.6 percent subscription level, the second lowest in the county. The report thus recommended that the OES translate all enrollment materials and alerts by March 31, 2021.

The report recommended three approaches for the OES to increase enrollment, with findings presented by Dec. 31, 2020: obtain landline telephone records from E-911 data; access public utility data to obtain bill payer information; and continue negotiations with mobile phone carriers, which have been uncooperative in the past.

San Mateo County’s 10.6 percent average subscription rate is similar to other Bay Area counties as Santa Clara County has a rate of 8.1 percent and Sonoma County has a 12 percent subscription rate.

The SMC Alert website and registration can be found online.