LOUISVILLE, Colo. — There has to be a better way.
During the Marshall Fire, residents in danger were notified to evacuate through a reverse notification service that automatically dialed landlines, but only notified cell phones and email addresses that had been opted-in.
"It seems unreal, at this day and age, when I haven’t had a landline in, I don’t know how many years, like 16, 17 years?" said Amber Tetreau.
"Our neighbor was pounding on the door that she could see flames," said Mark Carson.
Tetreau and Carson lost their home on Hillside Lane in Louisville, near the intersection of McCaslin Boulevard and Centennial Parkway.
"We lost everything," Carson sighed.
They were at home when the smoke and flames quickly arrived from the origin point near Highway 93 and Highway 170 about five miles southwest of their home.
"I used muscle memory to drive down the street because I literally could not see the hood of the car," said Carson.
They did not get a reverse notification to escape. They got a warning from a neighbor.
"Just so thankful that our neighbors stopped, as they were fleeing with their children, to knock on everyone’s doors. We really owe them everything," said Tetreau.
Boulder County uses Everbridge, the reverse notification system that is supposed to automatically call landlines, but people need to opt-in their cell phones and email addresses.
The county did not use Wireless Emergency Alerts (WEA), the type that arrive on your phone unexpected like an AMBER Alert or weather alert.
"I would have liked to have thought that in this day and age that we would have better capability to let people know when things like this are happening," said Tetreau.
She mentioned some places, like Summit County, send COVID alerts through an automated text.
"We have tornado sirens here that you can set your clock to the first Monday of every month, and even something like that might have triggered some response from more people," said Carson.
At a community meeting last week to get answers about the Marshall Fire, Boulder County Emergency Management addressed the notification issue.
"Can you talk a little bit about why the emergency sirens did not go off in this case?" asked Boulder County's Assistant Recovery Manager Katie Arrington.
"I don't have an answer as to why there were not used. Primarily, the sirens are designed for flood and severe weather events," said Boulder County Emergency Management Director Mike Chard.
He mentioned that strong winds can impact who can hear the alert, and that they are primarily to notify people outside, not people inside their home.
He also addressed a question that Tetreau wanted to know. Why not an automated text alert?
"Boulder County, just so everyone knows, we have been working on getting that capability in the county. It's not that we haven't ignored it, just the timing of this fire, but we are moving towards that," said Chard. "There's a danger of getting a lot of traffic in the infrastructure, roadways and then causing backups."
"I can appreciate that, but this was not coordinated. And the roads were clogged," said Tetreau.
"We all were lucky that we had each other because I feel like there was just a catastrophic failure to communicate to us and, luckily, we were just able to get out when we did," said Carson.
According to a Boulder County news release last week, the county will start incorporating WEA texts by the end of 2022.
"I’m grateful we all got out and I know that a lot of people lost their homes, and I don’t know how much of that could’ve been avoided, but I know a lot of people nearly lost their lives, and had this been at nighttime, I can’t even imagine…" said Carson.
"…what the loss of life would have been," said Tetreau.
Because of their neighbor, they had time to get out.
There has to be a better way.
WHY THESE ALERTS?
While Boulder County uses the Everbright system, most other local counties use another similar system called CodeRed. They perform the same service.
"Back in the day, when everyone had traditional landlines, it was easy to send out notifications to everyone in an area. It still works that way with a landline," Arapahoe County Public Information John Bartmann told 9NEWS. "Today, fewer and fewer residents have landlines. Many people are using cell phones. Because of this, we need residents to opt-in for the alerts."
Bartmann said that while there are other methods used for emergencies, they can overshoot the geographic area. That happened in August when people were notified to a boil alert for Englewood across the metro area.
"We need to remember that there is no perfect system and the best way is to get residents to sign up for their local agencies' emergency alerts," Bartmann said.