As wildfires ravage the state, engulfing homes and forcing thousands to flee the flames, Coloradans should know there are ways to make sure they’re informed about potential evacuation notices — but it all depends on where they live.
“It is not universal across all of Colorado,” said Kimberly Culp, chief executive officer of the Larimer Emergency Telephone Authority. “Every county has their own alerting processes and systems in place.”
And this patchwork of systems hasn’t always been the most effective tool. A 2012 examination by The Denver Post of 911 reverse-dialing systems across the Front Range found thousands of disconnected or no-longer-in-service phone numbers in databases updated every few months.
Typically, the most up-to-date and accurate information regarding wildfires, from evacuation notices to sign-ups for emergency alerts, can be found through a resident’s county emergency management team.
These teams are charged with planning and coordinating a wide range of activities to help prepare for, respond to, and recover from disasters and large-scale emergencies including wildfires, floods and hazardous materials incidents.
Culp oversees the Larimer Emergency Telephone Authority, which is the supervising agency for all things 911-related in Larimer County, where the Cameron Peak fire has burned more than 200,000 acres.
LETA is in charge of crafting and sending out emergency alerts, such as wildfire evacuation notices.
All Larimer County citizens’ landline phone numbers are automatically signed up to receive reverse-dialed 911 calls letting them know of an imminent threat to their life — like urgent wildfire evacuation warnings.
“But how many people have landline phones anymore?” Culp said. “Definitely limited.”
Larimer County residents who would like to be contacted by county authorities through a cellphone, email or even a pager must voluntarily sign up to receive the emergency notifications through leta911.org. Those alerts are tied to a submitted address, meaning if a fire is getting close enough to residents’ homes to warrant evacuation notices, LETA can alert the endangered residents’ cellphones.
Anyone who has trouble signing up but still wants to receive the notifications can call or text 970-962-2173, Culp said.
“We really encourage people to do it,” Culp said. “We want to reach you.”
To reach tourists or folks who don’t have a permanent address in Larimer County, Culp said LETA also resorts to sending out Amber Alert-style warnings through cellphone towers that notify anyone in the impacted area.
All the pertinent information lives on the website nocoalert.org, where people can search to see how close the fires are to their homes, whether they’re under voluntary or mandatory evacuations, and other important information, Culp said.
Similarly, in Boulder County, residents living near the CalWood or now-contained Lefthand Canyon fires can sign up at boco911alert.com to receive emergency alerts.
And in Grand County, where the East Troublesome fire has raged, officials urge residents and visitors to sign up for CodeRED alerts delivering cellphone or text messages in emergencies through the county’s website.
As a last-ditch effort to reach those who may not have access to technology or if infrastructure isn’t operating properly due to the disaster at hand, Culp said the Larimer County Sheriff’s Office does its best to reach as many people as possible by going door-to-door in the event of evacuations.
One snag to watch out for, Culp said, is that some cellphone providers classify emergency notification phone calls as spam on a caller’s phone, making some hesitant to pick up.
“What the citizen can do is create an account in the system and identify our caller ID as a number that is a contact. That way they know it’s an emergency alert, and then it won’t be flagged as spam,” Culp said.
“Our citizens have been so patient and so great, she added. “We just appreciate how wonderful they’ve been in such an uncomfortable situation.”
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