More than 10,000 calls warning residents to flee failed when the Waldo Canyon fire exploded near Colorado Springs in 2012. Thousands of people were left without warnings as flames destroyed 347 homes and killed two people.
That same year, evacuation alerts were sent to the wrong phone numbers during the Lower North Fork fire — three hours after residents reported seeing smoke and before the fire leveled about two dozen homes and left three people dead.
Among the dead was a 51-year-old woman who, like more than 90 residents in the Jefferson County neighborhood, didn’t get an evacuation notice due to a system glitch, officials said.
Emergency alert failures dogged Colorado 10 years before the Marshall fire began its destructive tear through Boulder County, devouring almost 1,100 houses and prompting fresh scrutiny of a system that’s been blamed for failures in catastrophic fires nationwide, a review of after-action reports shows.
State officials say emergency alert systems have come a long way since those disasters. But critics say they remain woefully deficient as landlines become obsolete and technological advancements heighten residents’ expectations that they’ll be warned if they’re in danger.
Efforts to introduce Amber Alert-style warnings that can be sent directly to cellphones have been slow to materialize. Boulder County acquired the technology before the fire but had not finished setting it up. It wasn’t in operation during the disaster.
The Marshall fire highlighted the limited reach of voluntary reverse 911 programs used in most Colorado communities, experts say.
As flames swept through Superior and Louisville, about 24,000 evacuation alerts were sent, but fewer than 1 in 5 were confirmed as having been received, The Colorado Sun previously reported.
And despite nine rounds of emergency phone and email alerts, responders were still encountering people unaware they were in danger, even as homes around them were burning.
“If command has police officers that are looking for something to do, if they could go where there’s fire in the area, we’re still finding people that have no clue,” a responder said around 3 p.m., four hours after the fire sparked, according to emergency dispatch recordings. “Their house is probably next to go up.”
Some counties have embraced the Amber Alert-style system after wildfires, finding opt-in commercial platforms alone aren’t enough. Amber Alerts — sent for missing children — go out to cellphones automatically, regardless of whether someone opts in.
La Plata County, for example, applied for the program after two disasters in 2018, starting with the massive 416 fire that exploded from near the Durango and Silverton Narrow Gauge railroad track in June. The next month, a flood forced officials to evacuate 120 campers in the county, none of whom had signed up for the county’s reverse-911 system, CodeRED. Opt-in rates for that system are low, and students, tourists and other part-time residents don’t tend to sign up.
Then, in November, the Camp fire decimated the town of Paradise, California, which used the same CodeRED system. The results in Paradise were disastrous: The first order to leave came as the fire was on the edge of town. A fraction of residents had signed up for alerts. Even among that group, up to 60% of calls failed to reach them, according to the Los Angeles Times. Nearly 90 people died.
“We were like ‘holy cow,’” said Chuck Stevens, then assistant La Plata County manager. “CodeRED just isn’t giving us everything we need in this specific instance,” Stevens said.
A similar pattern played out in California’s wine country after 2017 wildfires ravaged northern California, destroying nearly 9,000 structures and leaving 44 people dead.
A Napa County grand jury called the opt-in alert system and process for the 2017 wildfires “not sufficient, if they functioned at all.” Residents were in a state of panic, “scared and confused, as they fled the fast-approaching flames, trying also to call neighbors or knock on doors to warn them,” the report said.
The grand jury recommended immediate changes to the “disparate and inadequate warning systems and procedures,” including signing up for the federally run Amber Alert-style system.
Emergency responders say alerts are just one way to warn residents of an impending disaster. Other methods include using social media and going door to door, which officials did during the Marshall fire, a possible reason for the fire’s relatively low death toll, experts in the field say.
But technological advancements, social media and a 24-hour news cycle have made people expect they’ll receive a prompt warning — an expectation that emergency responders can’t always meet, said Kelly McKinney, former deputy commissioner for New York City’s emergency management office.
That’s not just due to the alert technology.
The process of sending alerts is hampered by an industry-wide lack of coordination and chronic lack of staff or funding, particularly in rural areas, emergency communications experts say.
A patchwork of alert systems nationwide — where some places send Amber-style alerts and others don’t — means there’s little consistency in what residents can expect. And the responsibility for sending alerts often falls to local officials struggling to coordinate a disaster response or track a fast-moving fire’s spread, said McKinney, who wrote a book called “Moment of Truth: The Nature of Catastrophes and How to Prepare for Them.”
“We’ve got these systems and they’re just duct taped together,” he added. “These things are going to keep happening. We need to get better at it.”
California lawmakers have moved to standardize training and protocols for using emergency alerts after the 2017 wildfires, saying the “need to alert residents of danger from these unprecedented disasters has never been greater.” Under another reform measure, counties can automatically enroll residents in alert systems, using information from utility companies.
A spokesman for Gov. Jared Polis referred questions to the state’s Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management’s spokeswoman Micki Trost, who said the state’s goal is for every county to be able to send Amber-style alerts.
As a home-rule state, the agency’s role is to help local jurisdictions become authorized to send the alerts, including offering training on how to craft effective messages and go through the application process with the federal government, Trost said. It can also send alerts on a county’s behalf.
But no alert system is foolproof and there should be backup options in place. Cell towers, cable lines or radio transmitters can be scorched by wildfire, cutting off communications.
“There is not ever going to be one way for us to notify everyone,” Trost said. She encouraged residents to sign up for reverse 911 calls.
Pattern of problems
Local officials have said they are reviewing the alerts sent during the Marshall fire, the state’s most destructive in terms of homes destroyed, after numerous residents complained they had not received any warning to flee.
As hurricane-force winds pushed the Marshall fire across more than 6,000 acres, nine evacuation alerts were sent to 24,289 contacts, including both landlines or accounts registered with the county’s opt-in system, called Everbridge. The first evacuation order was sent to at most 215 people at 11:47 a.m. on Dec. 30, 42 minutes after flames broke out, according to dispatch recordings reviewed by The Colorado Sun. It’s unclear how many people actually received them.
“I’m signed up for notifications,” Louisville Mayor Ashley Stolzmann said. “I didn’t get any.”
Two people are believed to have died in the fire — a number fire experts consider remarkably low due to the rapid spread of the flames. At least one of the people missing — a 91-year-old woman from Superior — was reportedly warned by a neighbor and a sheriff’s deputy to flee before flames engulfed her home.
Boulder County officials have said dispatchers were sketching out zones to send evacuation alerts on the fly, based on reports from responders on the ground, a process that can lengthen the time it takes to send them out.
There’s a quicker way. In 2019, after seeing the Carr fire scorch nearly 230,000 acres in northern California, a group of 17 mountain fire chiefs and the Boulder County Sheriff’s Office pre-drew evacuation zones in the western part of the county, so alerts could be sent with just a few clicks on a computer, said Lefthand Fire Protection District Chief Chris O’Brien.
They didn’t do the same for the eastern part of the county that was ravaged by the Marshall fire, far from the mountains where wildfires have burned more than 200 homes over the last three decades. O’Brien’s not certain it would have made a difference given how fast the fire was moving and how well the responders knew the area, but Boulder County officials have said having pre-drawn zones “greatly reduces” the time needed to get alerts ready to send.
Other issues have been raised in the wake of past wildfires.
During the Waldo Canyon fire, reverse 911 calls reached large numbers of residents before the flames ravaged most of the Mountain Shadows neighborhood. But many who hadn’t registered their cell phones did not get a notification to evacuate. People who remotely retrieve voicemails from their land lines were disconnected by the prompts to hear an evacuation message, El Paso County officials wrote in an after-action report.
Calls were dropped due to high call volume. Comcast subscribers lost service to use their televisions, internet and phones. The need to better educate residents about the alert process was listed among several “areas for improvement” identified in the report.
During the East Troublesome and Williams Fork fires eight years later, evacuations were “obviously hurried,” prompting one person to note “we were fortunate not to have traffic accidents,” according to a draft document summarizing written comments and an after action meeting. Communication with the public about evacuations was not consistent, particularly in Granby, and there weren’t specific plans for at-risk communities, like day care centers, the draft report said.
Fire Chief Brad White said sending Amber-style alerts is “part of the plan” going forward; the county struggles to reach tourists through opt-in alerts.
He considers the evacuations during the East Troublesome fire to have been largely successful, with the two people who died having been warned to leave multiple times.
But lack of staffing and resources is a barrier across the West, sometimes leaving dispatch centers without the tools needed to do their jobs, he said.
“I know every dispatch center is always short handed, they always have open jobs. They’re always trying to get somebody trained up for basic stuff,” he said.
During the 2018 Spring Creek fire that scorched more than 108,000 acres in southern Colorado, residents were told to evacuate through Costilla County’s reverse 911 system and neighbors warning each other through a “calling tree,” an informal system run by volunteers, said Emergency Management Coordinator Chris Rodriguez. Responders also knocked on doors.
The public will likely learn more about the strengths and weaknesses in emergency management’s response to the Marshall fire after a team of experts learn more about the coordination between agencies and communication efforts, and publish their findings in a public report. The state’s Division of Fire Prevention and Control ordered the review in January and it’s expected to take several months to complete.
Amber-style warnings used in past fires
Amber-style alerts have been used during other Colorado fires.
Larimer County’s 911 authority, for example, sent more than 276 alerts for wildfires between August 2020 and November 2020, including when the East Troublesome fire jumped the Continental Divide and moved toward Estes Park. Five of them were also sent as Amber-style alerts and broadcast on radio and television. Emergency officials cited concerns for campers and tourists in the fire’s path, and for residents in areas with low opt-in rates for reverse 911 warnings.
Kimberly Culp, the authority’s head, said it takes an aggressive approach to warning residents, letting tourists sign up for alerts via text (with a promise they can opt out if they text “STOP”), posting flyers and even flashing road signs on the way to Estes Park, encouraging tourists to opt in.
Despite those efforts, some 95,978 people have opted in to alerts in the county of 359,000. More than 160,000 have also been automatically added — mainly landlines and college students and faculty, through a partnership with Colorado State University.
“We obviously would love to have 100%,” Culp said. “This is why we have so many layers in our emergency alerting platform,” she added.
Participation rates are even lower in other parts of the state, according to data from more than half of Colorado’s counties reviewed by The Colorado Sun. In Chaffee County, with a population of about 19,500, about 4,200 people signed up to receive alerts. Less than a quarter of Montrose County residents signed up to receive alerts, data show, and less than 11% of the population of Arapahoe County registered to receive an alert. That doesn’t include those whose landlines were automatically added.
In Boulder County, more than 199,000 landlines had been automatically added to the county’s opt-in system, called Everbridge, at the time of the Marshall fire. Around 79,500 people had signed up to receive texts, calls or emails.
Within a month of the fire, an additional 25,862 people signed up to receive alerts, still less than one-third of county residents, according to state demographic data.
Even among those who opt in, it’s unclear how many residents actually receive alerts.
During the Marshall fire, about 20% of those who should have received an Everbridge warning confirmed they received one, for example by pressing “1” on their phone. In some areas, the confirmation rate was as low as 6%.
In fact, of 94 Everbridge alerts Boulder County has sent since the middle of 2020, 88 had confirmation rates below 50%, sometimes as low as 0%.
The county didn’t receive a single confirmation for an alert it sent Oct. 17, 2020, when as many as 47 people living along County Road 87J were warned to prepare to flee the Cal-Wood fire that destroyed 20 homes in a matter of hours.
More recently, it recorded a 2.5% confirmation rate after 5,000 people were told to shelter in place May 31 due to police activity in the city’s Gunbarrel neighborhood.
The Boulder County Sheriff’s Office said people are likely in a stressful situation when they receive alerts and may not take the time to confirm receipt.
Despite the potential to reach more people with warnings of possible danger, adoption of Amber-style alerts has been slow. And the system has not been extensively tested, in part due to competition between cell carriers, said Dan Gonzales, a senior scientist with RAND Corporation who has extensively researched the technology. Tests could reveal significant time delays or gaps in coverage.
In past years, the system could only send 90-character alerts — leaving little space to communicate an urgent message — and targeting was imprecise, potentially resulting in too many people being alerted.
More advanced geotargeting is available now for cell phones with newer computer chips, accurate to one-tenth of a mile.
But some emergency responders still fear that over-messaging could lead to clogged evacuation routes or swamped 911 call centers.
“Over-alerting, warning fatigue, crying wolf, (fear of) causing panic — these are things that prevent emergency managers from sending out those messages,” said Jeannette Sutton, an emergency preparedness, homeland and cybersecurity professor specializing in public alerts at the University of Albany, SUNY. “I’m positive that some people still believe that those things happen.”
“Waiting to send messages in dire conditions creates more problems,” she added.
Some agencies may not have the resources or experience to feel comfortable with the technology or are afraid of blasting out an incorrect message to a massive group of people, emergency communications experts said.
Fifty-one of Colorado’s 64 counties are authorized to send the alerts, and more than 60 Amber-style alerts were sent by local or state officials in Colorado between May 2021 and January 2022. It’s unclear how many counties or regional communications centers, like Boulder County, are approved to but have not fully set up the system.
The number of counties that have adopted the alerts is up from late 2019, when about 30 cities, counties and regional communications centers in Colorado had authorization. Combined with the state, they sent 20 messages over a span of seven years, according to a report from the nonpartisan U.S. Government Accountability office.
Among the most prolific users of the Amber-style alerts is Summit County, where emergency management director Brian Bovaird sends them for events ranging from COVID-19 mask orders to evacuations to requests that residents not call 911 reporting a plume of smoke firefighters are already investigating.
“That greatly reduces incoming calls” to the dispatch center, he said.
Summit County’s population hovers around 30,000, but during busy tourism seasons, the number of people can swell to 150,000, he said. He typically sends an Amber-style alert with a link to get more information and then will follow up with more detail through the opt-in systems, which allows for longer messages. That can include information about which evacuation routes to take, or requests that those not affected by a certain disaster stay off the roads while others are evacuating.
A few residents push back and accuse him of abusing the system. But he adamantly disagrees with the idea that sending Amber-style alerts should be avoided because of traffic concerns.
“We know that the second we order an evacuation, that creates a whole new host of problems to deal with,” he said. “But that host of problems pales in comparison to people either being unaware of the incident, or even worse, being aware of the incident and then becoming a part of that incident because they weren’t notified.”
Late warnings can leave those with little mobility — people who are elderly or disabled, or those without a car — without time to prepare, said Tom Cova, a University of Utah geography professor who specializes in emergency management, wildfire warnings and evacuation systems.
That may have happened during the monthlong firestorm in California wine country, where the distribution of fatalities skewed heavily toward older residents, he said. The average age of 42 people who died was 73 years old, according to news reports.
Boulder County had not finished setting up its system to send the Amber-style alerts at the time of the Marshall fire, citing the workload brought on by the pandemic response and other disasters.
State officials offered to help Boulder County send an Amber-style alert, but the county’s office of disaster management declined, saying the offer was made late in the evacuation process and would have required already thinly stretched county staff to scramble to learn a new system.
The county expects it will be ready to use by this spring.