Communicating During a Catastrophe: Boulder County’s emergency alert system proves beneficial

By Kendall Brunette

This was the big one — the event everyone knew could happen, but everyone hoped wouldn’t.

“When you’re in this line of work, you live for these kinds of incidents – you train for it,” said Steve Silbermann, the communications supervisor with the Boulder County Sheriff’s Office.  “You don’t live for it because you hope for harm on people, land or property, but this is what we do for a living.”

On the evening of Sept. 11, Silbermann left work at the county dispatch center.  It was raining outside, but never did it cross his mind that a historic storm was soon to follow.

But shortly after leaving, the dispatch center became inundated with 911 calls.  People were trapped in cars, stranded on roofs.  Most were simply confused.  They couldn’t fully grasp the severity of the situation.

Around 9 p.m., Silbermann returned to the dispatch center, where his his division chief turned him away, telling him to go home, get some rest and prepare for what would be a long week to come.

Eighteen-hour workdays became the norm. The sleep center within the county communications building remained full as employees worked tirelessly throughout the day and into the night.

Silbermann and his colleagues worked with police and fire departments, and EMS and rescue teams to coordinate emergency protocols and address 911 calls. Rescuers couldn’t respond to several calls simply because there was no access to people.

“The roads [were] being washed away,” Silbermann said.

September brought more than just flooding rain to Boulder County.  It brought challenges that the county never expected to face — problems brought about by a historic storm, but exacerbated by previous wildfire and technological communication issues.  Silbermann and colleagues were prepared to handle many of those challenges, but they never envisioned a flood of this magnitude.

Looking back, however, Silbermann is proud of what the county accomplished and, with a few tweaks in the system, feels that Boulder County is well-prepared for a similar catastrophe.

Fourmile Canyon Fire

Glen Haven road photo

The remnants of a road through the town of Glen Haven, Colo. after September’s flood.
Photo by Kendall Brunette

 

In 2010 the Fourmile Canyon fire burned more than 6,000 acres and 169 homes.  The devastating fire stripped the land of all vegetation.  The fire left scorched, barren soils prone to flooding.

“When you have a dense forest with undergrowth, you have plants and things to trap moisture and rain,” said Kari Bowen, meteorologist at the National Weather Service office in Boulder during an interview with LiveScience.  “But when it’s gone, you have nothing to catch it.”

“The fire also makes the ground almost hydrophobic, or water-repelling, and these effects can last 10 to 15 years,” she added.

Exactly three years after the fire, torrential rains consumed Boulder’s rivers, streams, valleys, hills and mountains.  As predicted, dry soil within the burn area did little to absorb the rain and floods ensued.

Over the last three years, hydrologists studied the area in an effort to better understand the increased post-fire flood risk.  According to Silbermann, Boulder County spent millions of dollars to help recover land within the Fourmile burn.  A process known as aerial mulching drops hay mixed with grass seeds from helicopters to increase water absorption on burned soils and re-vegetate the land.  The county hoped the mulching would speed up post-fire recovery and reduce the flood risk.

Boulder’s Office of Emergency Management (OEM) used the data from hydrologists to educate people living in the burn area, as well as the general public about what could happen in the event of severe weather.  While public education was concentrated on those people living within the burn, Silbermann believes that people everywhere were well-prepared for the flood.

“When we talk about these flood risks that existed after the Fourmile fire, we always imagined it was going to be isolated to the burn area – that those would be the only people severely affected by such a storm,” Silbermann said.  “We never imagined that it was going to be a massive up-slope storm that affected the whole Front Range, let alone just Boulder County. That was the kicker.”

Air Evacuations

Over the next few days, more than 2,000 people were evacuated by Chinooks, Blackhawks and various other air supports.  Silbermann’s sources claim that the 2013 Colorado Flood was the second largest air evacuation in U.S. history.  The only other natural disaster that used comparable air support was Hurricane Katrina.

Silbermann described the scene at the Boulder Municipal Airport – the incident command post during the flooding.

“It was kind of like when you’re at the Boulder Transit Center and RTD buses are flowing in and out – it was like that with helicopters,” Silbermann said.  “It was Chinooks landing and a bunch of people getting out, looking like they had come from DIA because they had their pets in pet carriers, kids in hand and rollaway luggage and duffels.”

Dispatch Communications

Louisville siren photo

Emergency siren in the town of Louisville, Colo.
Photo courtesy Dave Sittner

During the flooding, the Boulder County Dispatch Center relied primarily on their emergency siren system and Everbridge – an interactive communication and mass notification system to relay warnings to the public.  Everbridge sends emergency notifications via text message, phone calls and emails to people who opt-in to the system.

The Boulder County Fire Department designates zones throughout the county that are loaded into a mapping software program.  In the event of an emergency, county dispatchers can log into the program and send a specific message to certain zones.  For example, the Fourmile Burn area comprises a particular geographic zone.  Dispatchers send an array of pre-scripted messages, as well as improvised live warnings through Everbridge.

Four times throughout the year, landlines throughout the county are uploaded into Everbridge.  Messages go out automatically to these lines.  As cell phone popularity surpasses landline use, the need for people to enroll their cellular devices into Everbridge becomes important.  OEM has increased public education to make people aware of their option to opt-in to alerts.

During September’s flood, county dispatch sent over 80 emergency notifications through Everbridge.  The content of the notifications ranged from evacuation notices to water contamination warnings.  OEM maintained a variety of social media outlets including, Twitter, Facebook and their website to keep the public updated.

Rural Communication

For people living in rural parts of the county, however, Everbridge and social media are not reliable methods of communication.  Internet and cellular service can be spotty at best in areas like Boulder Canyon, Fourmile Canyon, Nederland and Lyons.  While Everbridge was still able to send messages through household landlines, the “door-to-door knock and talks,” as Silbermann called them, played a larger part in rural emergency notifications.  Police and fire department personnel conducted home visits that were critical is notifying rural residents of flood danger.

“Yes, communication technologies are invaluable, but that doesn’t compare to a cop or firefighter walking up to your door and saying, get out!” Silbermann said.  “That saved lives – we’ll never know how many.”

Emergency Sirens

siren encoder photo

One of the encoders used to remotely initiate the county’s emergency sirens.
Photo courtesy Dave Sittner

Dave Sittner, communications technician with the Boulder County Sheriff’s Office, said there are 23 emergency sirens throughout the county.  (View siren map here)

One of the questions Sittner frequently hears is why aren’t there sirens at certain locations. For example, why isn’t there a siren in the Fourmile burn zone?  

According to Sittner, there is no “magic bullet formula” determining siren placement.  Generally, officials try to place sirens in places of greatest efficiency – places where the sirens will be heard by the greatest number of people.  

Many rural communities throughout Boulder County don’t have sirens simply because of debilitating costs.  Sittner said that each siren costs approximately $25,000.  The only rural community with sirens within the county is Lyons.  

Dan Barber, deputy director at Boulder OEM, was the county sheriff sergeant assigned to Lyons.  During his time in this position, he urged town officials to spend the money to install new warning sirens.  Eventually, the town paid heed to Barber’s concerns and installed two sirens in 2008.  In Barber’s mind, it wasn’t if, but when the big flood was going to happen and in September Lyons residents were thankful for Barber’s persistent efforts.

Sittner and colleagues heard several reports that Lyons sirens saved countless lives during the flooding.  

After-Action Meetings

In the three months since the flood, local fire and police department, county dispatchers and EMS have and continue to host meetings to capture what went well and what needs to be improved upon, in terms of flood communications.

Silbermann said that, “Overall, this event went really well for emergency services.”  

Most of the challenges that the individual agencies faced were directly related to access.  

“We had 911 calls where we said, I’m sorry, we can’t get to you – a lot of them,” Silbermann said.  

The reality is that the flooding cut off a lot of people from help and emergency services.  One improvement being discussed in the after-action meetings is to map out more pre-determined zones for Everbridge messaging – Lyons specifically.  

“What we’ve done for the Fourmile burn planning, we’re expanding countywide,” Silbermann noted.

Some residents complained that they were unable to hear the siren messaging.  Sittner explained that the sirens are not meant to be heard indoors.  The hope is that the sirens will alert people who are outside and face the most immediate danger.  The Everbridge system complements the sirens by sending alerts to those indoors.  During September’s flood, heavy rain created ambient noise that interfered with the sirens – an issue that they county claims they don’t have any control over.  

Cry Wolf Syndrome

There has been a lot of concern over the years that Everbridge notifications and siren warnings may be used too liberally.  When a storm system settles over areas like the Fourmile burn, dispatchers alert residents of possible flood risks.  When these threats are unanswered, residents become desensitized to the notifications – a situation Silbermann refers to as “cry wolf syndrome.”

September’s events, however, opened people’s eyes to what could happen and how important the emergency communications system really is.    

“There’s no way to put a number on it – there’s no way to have a statistic of it, but we have done so much research and public education to notify our citizens of what could happen in the event of a flood over the last three years since the fire, that I truly believed we saved a lot of lives,” Silbermann concluded.

Weekly Round-Up — Nov. 21

By Kendall Brunette

BOULDER WEEKLY

Federal sequestration cuts hurt ongoing medical research by reducing research grant funding.  According to Boulder Weekly, Christopher Lowry, a scientist in the department of integrative physiology at the University of Colorado Boulder, is one of many CU scientists who are struggling to obtain funding for their research.  Lowry is researching new treatments for depression and is working toward a vaccination against it.  Although his research has received constant funding since 1995, he now faces the reality that the money will soon run out, leaving his research in question.

THE DENVER POST

The Boulder County Sheriff’s Office is seeking information about two recent incidents of illegal chemical dumping near Lyons.  According to The Denver Post, authorities found a 30-gallon barrel of zinc cyanide dumped at the Black Bear Inn earlier this month.  Four days later, a 20-gallon barrel of copper cyanide was discovered at an Environmental Protection Agency dump site.

UNIVERSITY OF COLORADO BOULDER

CU-Boulder proudly announced the successful launch of its Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution (MAVEN) mission on Monday, Nov. 18.  The CU-led $671 million NASA mission to Mars will target the role that the loss of atmospheric gases played in changing Mars from a warm, wet and possibly habitable planet for life to the cold, dry and inhospitable planet it appears to be today, according to a CU-Boulder news release.

Weekly Round-Up — Nov. 14

By Kendall Brunette

UNIVERSITY OF COLORADO BOULDER

A new study, led by researchers at NOAA’s Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences (CIRES) at the University of Colorado Boulder, found that dust from Colorado’s eastern prairies is making its way onto high-elevation Rocky Mountain snowpacks.  According to a CIRES news release, snow littered with dust particles absorbs more solar radiation, which accelerates melting.  Much of this accelerated melting occurs high in the Rocky Mountains – the headwaters of the Colorado River.  Early runoff from melting snowpack will negatively impact the 40 million people who depend on the Colorado River for water.

BOULDER DAILY CAMERA

Since September’s devastating floods, the Colorado Department of Transportation and local partners have worked tirelessly to reopen highways and roads that were overtaken by water across the state.  According to the Daily Camera, only 32 miles of highway remained closed and impassable for drivers.  Out of the 485 miles of road damaged during the flooding, U.S. 34 between Loveland and Estes Park and Colorado 7 from the Peak-to-Peak Highway to Lyons are all that is left to be repaired and reopened.

BOULDER WEEKLY

A new set of proposed air quality regulations seem weak in the eyes of Colorado’s anti-fracking activists.  According to Boulder Weekly, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency released new air quality standards, leading the state of Colorado to update its rules which will be presented to the state Air Quality Control Commission on Nov. 21.  Environmentalists argue that the new regulations do not adequately address local air quality infractions and blame the oil and gas industry for pressuring state officials to soften the new rules.

Wet avalanches join the long list of climate change consequences

By Kendall Brunette

You’ve planned, prepared and trained for this day.

Your legs are full of energy and ready to carry you to the summit.

You noticed the air becoming lighter with each step, but the adrenaline pushes you up the mountain with determination and perseverance.

Standing atop the summit, you look down at the white mountainside below you, anxiously and meticulously picking your line of descent.

You point your tips and send it!

Before you lies nothing but untouched powder waiting for you to carve the majestic turns most people only dream about.

With each turn you feel the freedom and exhilaration you’ve been craving.

Until…WHUMPH!

The sound every backcountry skiier or snowboarder fears – the sound of an avalanche breaking lose beneath you.

This sound has become more familiar and common in the backcountry because of climate change.  According to the U.S. Forest Service, wet avalanches are caused by rain, prolonged exposure to sun and warm temperatures.  These type of avalanches differ from the more prevalent dry avalanches, which are caused by wind-loaded snow drifts placing excess stress on the snowpack.  Climate change-induced warming trends facilitate the conversion of snow precipitation into rain at lower elevations, adding more moisture to the low-elevation snowpacks.


easel.ly

Jeff Deems, research scientist at the University of Colorado Boulder’s National Snow & Ice Data Center, studies snow hydrology – the study of how snow moves and forms.

“Low-elevation snowpacks exhibit climate change impacts first,” Deems said.  “We are losing those low-elevation snowpacks – they are not accumulating as early, and they are melting faster and earlier.”

According to Deems, minimally warmer atmospheric temperatures turn a substantial fraction of snowfall episodes into rainfall events.

“At low elevations, we are seeing a diminished snow pack, either from the snow not accumulating in the first place because it rained instead, or from additional rain falling on top of the snowpack, which helps melt the snow faster,” Deems said.

Rain falling on top of the snowpack may indeed melt the snow faster, but it also increases the risk of wet avalanches.  Snow carried down mountainsides by wet avalanches tends to be heavier and concrete-like, as they are laden with excess moisture.  Wet avalanches move significantly slower than dry avalanches, which some claim to be a benefit, as it allows more time for people to escape the sliding snow.  The U.S. Forest Service says that wet avalanches are also more difficult for humans to trigger because of the differences in weight and moisture content of the snow.

According to the Colorado Avalanche Information Center, Colorado endured 223 avalanche accidents over the past four years.  Of these incidents, 33 were fatal.  Skiiers are the most common avalanche victims throughout the state, but snowboarders, snowmobilers, snowshoers and hikers are also included in the statistics compiled by CAIC.  Nationwide, snowmobilers comprise the greatest number of avalanche fatalities over the past nine years.

US av fatalities by season

Based on data from CAIC, avalanche fatalities follow a growing trend.  Over the last 60 years, the number of fatalities has steadily increased each year.  One explanation for this trend is advances in technology, leading to greater backcountry access.  Today’s snowmobiles harness greater horsepower and are specifically designed for climbing mountains in the backcountry.  Skiiers and snowboarders have gained greater backcountry access with helicopters and snowcats – fully tracked vehicles designed for on-snow travel.

Climate change is the other explanation for the increase in avalanche fatalities.  Warmer atmospheric temperatures, paired with rainfall on snowpack creates a ripe recipe for wet avalanches and the chill-inducing WHUMPH!

Deems simply says, “We know that if you change the atmosphere, you change the snowpack.”

And when you change the snowpack, you run the risk of erasing those beautifully carved turns with massively destructive wet avalanches…WHUMPH!

Weekly Round-Up — Nov. 7

By Kendall Brunette

HIGH COUNTRY NEWS

Earlier this week, High Country News published an article about commuters across the U.S.  The article was in response to an August report released by the USPIRG Education Fund, which found that people in all but seven states drove less in 2011 than they did in 2005.  Specifically, Colorado decreased their daily driving by 11.4 percent.  The article credited the expansion of Denver’s light and commuter rail services during the six-year time period as a significant contributor to Colorado’s decreased daily driving.

DAILY CAMERA

Boulder police arrested a 19-year-old CU student Wednesday after he admitted to killing a raccoon with a bat.  According to the Boulder Daily Camera, the student told police that he killed the raccoon for its hide.  Jace Robert Griffiths did not say what he planned to do with the raccoon hide, but he could be charged with aggravated animal cruelty.

THE DENVER POST

Trader Joe’s, the specialty grocery store chain, announced its debut in Colorado on Thursday.  According to The Denver Post, the chain plans to open a store in Boulder at the Twenty Ninth Street mall in February.  Denver and Fort Collins will also receive new Trader Joe’s stores.  The chain will host a Grand Opening in Boulder on Valentine’s Day 2014.

Boulder votes to extend its moratorium on fracking

By Kendall Brunette

Hydraulic fracturing or “fracking” continues to spark controversy across the country.  In Boulder, Colo., however, more than three-fourths of the city’s voting population seem to agree on the issue.

Tuesday, Boulder residents voted to extend the current moratorium on fracking through June 2018 with the passing of Boulder Ballot Question 2H.  2H passed by 77.94 percent.  22,673 voters agreed to extend the moratorium, while a mere 6,417 voters – 22.06 percent – opposed the measure.

City Council can interrupt the moratorium after June 2016 with a two-thirds vote.

campaign pins

Pieces of the 2013 Boulder Election
Photo by Kendall Brunette

Fracking is a natural gas drilling technology that uses sand, water and chemicals injected at high pressure to blast open shale rock and release trapped natural gas.

Proponents of fracking claim the technology is not harmful to human health, water or air quality.

B.J. Nikkel, an oil and gas industry spokesperson, said in a recent Boulder Weekly article, “I see no real information that shows me definitively that there are cases cited, legitimate cases cited, as issues with any health effects. I really believe it’s hype.”

Nikkel, along with 22.06 percent of Boulder voters, claim fracking technology has been safely used for decades. Those who voted to strike down Boulder’s moratorium list loss of revenue, mineral royalties, jobs and energy independence as consequences of 2H’s passing.

These assumed consequences, however, were overshadowed Tuesday night by voters’ worries about public health and environmental safety.  The vote to extend Boulder’s fracking moratorium allows more time for research on fracking’s human and environmental impacts.

“Boulder voters were very clear about how they felt,” said Gary Sorcher of New Era Colorado Foundation.

Sorcher is the voter registration and campus outreach coordinator for New Era, a  multi-issue organization committed to engaging, educating, and training a new generation of active citizens and young leaders in Colorado.

Sorcher said New Era’s mission is to get young people involved in politics and democracy.  After Tuesday night’s election, he feels the group successfully completed their mission.

On election day, Sorcher personally drove 140 young people to the polls.  He says the organization, as a whole, brought even more young people to the polls.

New Era was one of the many campaign groups involved in the 2013 election.  Several other groups including, Frack Free Colorado, Clean Water Action, Yes on 2H and East Boulder County United campaigned in favor of 2H.

Coloradans for Responsible Energy Development and the Colorado Oil and Gas Association (COGA) worked to strike down 2H, but to no avail.

According to Broomfield Enterprise, COGA donated $600,000 to the fight against fracking bans throughout Colorado’s Front Range.  Voters in Lafayette and Fort Collins passed similar bans Tuesday.  Broomfield voters appear to have voted down a fracking ban, but a recount is likely, as the moratorium failed by only 13 votes as of Wednesday morning.

The Boulder Daily Camera spoke with East Boulder County United’s Cliff Willmeng, who led the fight against fracking in Lafayette.

Willmeng said, “The voters are saying that they don’t buy the idea that corporate interests are superior to public health, property values, quality of life and democratic self-determination.”

The Daily Camera also reported strong reactions from Russell Mendell, director of Frack Free Colorado.

“Today Colorado residents have shown that they can decide for themselves whether or not they want fracking in their communities,” Mendell said.  “(The industry’s) millions will not change that.”

Oil and gas representatives say the outcome of the election is insignificant because the cities that banned fracking have little or no oil and gas production.  According to National Geographic, the industry is not surprised by the results.

Stan Dempsey, president of the Colorado Petroleum Association, referred to the election results as largely symbolic – emphasizing the fact that there is no proposed oil or gas development in Boulder or Lafayette, and that there is only one small operator in Fort Collins.

For now, Boulder’s fracking moratorium remains in effect.  The next few years will serve as an opportunity for researchers to dig deeper into fracking’s impact on human and environmental health with the hopes of providing solid data that will guide future policy decisions.

Weekly Round-Up — Nov. 1

DAILY CAMERA

A recent report released by Boulder’s Clean Energy Action claims the U.S. is reaching the end of its minable coal deposits at a faster rate than previously predicted.  According to the Boulder Daily Camera, the report listed 2008 as the year in which the U.S. reached peak coal production. U.S. coal companies mined 1.171 billion tons of coal in 2008.  By 2012, production dropped to 1.016 billion tons.

BOULDER WEEKLY

Rep. B.J. Nikkel, spokesperson for the oil and gas industry, spoke out about Boulder County’s fracking controversy just days before residents vote on the proposed oil and gas ballot measures in Boulder and Lafayette.  According to Boulder Weekly, Nikkel claims that local anti-fracking groups receive significant funding for their campaign efforts – comparative to the amounts raised for industry-backed campaigns.  Nikkel also said that concerns about fracking’s impact on human health and groundwater are largely exaggerated.  Nikkel’s work at iKue Strategies is funded, in large part, by the Colorado Oil and Gas Association.

GRIST

Opponents of Boulder’s anti-fracking ballot measure contributed $606,205 – 99.7 percent of which came from the Colorado Oil and Gas Association – toward the pro-fracking campaign.  According to Grist, groups contributing to the anti-fracking campaign have raised only $16,000 in their fight against fracking in four Colorado cities – Boulder, Fort Collins, Lafayette and Broomfield.