Pitkin County ponders testing alert system
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO, Colorado
ASPEN – Emergency responders and Pitkin County commissioners are calling for a test of the reverse 911 emergency notification system given the escalating fire danger this spring and problems that arose during a fast-moving wildfire on the Front Range last month.
Commissioners quizzed Mark Gamrat, the county’s communications director, on the reliability of the system Wednesday. Meanwhile, area fire chiefs suggested a test of the system during a wildfire-preparedness meeting that also took place Wednesday, according to Tom Grady, emergency manager for Pitkin County.
Grady anticipates the Communications Board, a multi-agency group that includes ambulance and fire districts and police departments, will make a similar request when it meets Thursday.
County Commissioner Rachel Richards asked Gamrat if a test run of the system is possible. At about 25 cents per call, for some 18,500 land-based phone lines in the county, it would be an expensive proposition to test every phone number, Gamrat said.
How best to verify that people who were supposed to get a call actually did also raised questions.
“I don’t know how we would advertise – if you didn’t receive one of these messages on your answering machine, please call us,” Richards said.
Rather than an all-county test, a smaller geographic area would be chosen to receive calls, Grady said. The system sends out an automated message in the event of an emergency. For a test, recipients would receive a test message rather than an actual warning, he said.
When a March 26 wildfire scorched about 6 square miles and damaged or destroyed more than two dozen homes in the mountains southwest of Denver, some residents complained that they received no warning call. Three people died during the fire, though the Jefferson County coroner hasn’t announced the cause of their deaths. One victim apparently didn’t receive a phone call telling her to evacuate because her address wasn’t correctly listed, according to an Associated Press report. In addition, the first wave of warning calls went to a number of people outside of the evacuation area, the AP reported.
The reverse call system offers no guarantees, Gamrat told commissioners.
On the Front Range, a Jefferson County sheriff’s spokesman said some of the individuals who didn’t receive a warning likely hung up after hearing the pause that precedes the automated message, or their phone may have been busy.
“It’s just not 100 percent accurate,” Gamrat said after his discussion with commissioners. “There are too many variables in it. It’s unfortunate.”
Grady advises that residents be prepared to evacuate and do so when they think they should.
“My recommendation is for people to assume responsibility for their own self-rescue. Don’t wait for government,” he said. “When you feel it’s right, go.”
Nonetheless, local government employs several methods to warn citizens in the event of an emergency, according to Gamrat. The reverse 911 system is but one avenue.
Messages are also sent out for broadcast on television and radio, but whether the individual stations play the messages is up to them, he said.
In addition, citizens can sign up to receive alerts through the Pitkin Alert system, which sends updates in the form of emails, text messages to cell phones and pages to pagers. Go to http://www.pitkinalert.org to sign up. There’s no charge for the service.
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