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El Paso-Teller Counties investigating why evacuation orders reached outside impacted areas

Posted at 7:45 AM, May 18, 2022
and last updated 2022-05-18 23:59:31-04

COLORADO SPRINGS, CO — El Paso-Teller Counties are investigating after some mishaps with the emergency alert that went out for the Ackerman Fire in Stetson Hills last week.

Crews were called just after 11 a.m. last Thursday for a fire behind homes on Akerman Dr near the Sand Creek Trail in an open space area between the neighborhoods. Dry fuel and debris in the area were the immediate danger right behind the homes, and the fire grew to about 30 acres.

Some people who live more than ten miles from the fire got a Peak Alert on their phone to evacuate.

"It was really surprising the notification was for here, given the location of my house and where the fire was," said David Noblit, Colorado Springs resident.

Noblit resides in the Briargate area, far from the reaches of the Ackerman Fire.

"Very familiar with the area, it was in a district I used to work at so I was understanding of the area. I didn't have to look it up. I did have a close friend who was over there so I tuned into reports to see what was going on," said Noblit.

He is a retired Colorado Springs firefighter, and knows what can happen with notification errors.

"People are very much aware of the dry conditions that we currently have, the number of wildland fires we've had in the state. There is a lot of news coverage about it so I think people are really sensitive so when they get a notification everybody believes it applies to them so they're trying to move into a direction that is appropriate," said Noblit. "If we get too many people not directly impacted by the fire then the congestion added to the roadways only multiples the problems that we have as far as trying to get those impacted by the fire access to the roadways."

Public safety agencies in El Paso and Teller Counties sent out four evacuation orders for separate fires to notify residents impacted by fires last Thursday. The following issues were identified with the alerts:

1. The alert reached outside the impacted area
2. The link in the Wireless Emergency Alert (WEA) did not display a map of the affected area
3. The location information contained in the alerts about the fires could be improved upon

The Summer Grace Street/Akerman Road alert was sent with Peak Alerts along with Integrated Public Alert and Warning System (IPAWS) to broaden the reach within the impacted area by disseminating messages via television broadcast, radio broadcast, NOAA weather radios, and Wireless Emergency Alerts (WEA). Public safety agencies used IPAWS to send additional alerts.

Wireless Emergency Alerts send short messages accompanied by a vibration and alert tone to WEA-Enabled cell phones in a locally targeted area without downloading an app or subscribing to a service. Utilizing these notifications ensures people in harm’s way receive the alert, specifically tourists, people traveling through the impacted area during their daily commute, and those who are not registered to receive Peak Alerts. Ideally, Wireless Emergency Alerts notify citizens in the impacted area with no more than 1/10th of a mile (528 feet) overshoot.

"We want to make these notifications in an emergency as quickly and efficiently as possible. It is never our intent to cause panic or alarm for those who don't need the information. You will only receive a notification if you are in a targeted area to receive that information," said Ben Bills, Public Information Officer for El Paso-Teller County 911 Authority.

The Authority is working with FEMA and the software company to figure out what went wrong with the alert. They're also working to figure out why there was not a map included of the evacuation zone.

"There are a few different things in motion right now. Everyone who uses a mass notification system, there is a software running behind it. Peak Alerts is how we're branded our emergency notification system and it is powered by software called Everbridge. We use Everbridge software to make notifications via phone, text, and email. We are in touch with Everbridge, we've asked them some questions to check configuration settings, to make sure that everything is aligned with best practices. We've also posed some questions to FEMA, and I sent some information regarding people I met at the town hall meeting with the fire department last week who received the alert outside of the area to see if we can't pinpoint where it might have gotten out and why did it go so far," said Bills.

Some like Noblit want to see a more developed emergency alert system with a proven track record.

"I think there are so many opportunities for programs out there. We really need to take a look to see which is the absolute best. Sometimes it is good to start fresh, maybe bring in something that is brand new or that's been tried. California has been an amazing area in this arena. Why not go to the professionals of those programs that are more user friendly, that have been in place over there as opposed to try to fix a system that may take more time, energy, effort, and cost," said Noblit.

The Authority will not use WEA notifications until it can determine why the WEA reached outside the impacted area. Public safety agencies will continue to use Peak Alerts to notify citizens who reside in areas impacted by an emergency by sending targeted alerts via phone calls, text messages, and email. Citizens must opt-in online to receive notifications. To sign up for the Peak Alerts system go online. For more information call (719) 785-1900. If you have questions you can also email info@elpasoteller911.org

Here are some additional resources to help you evaluate all the ways you can get notifications and where to get key updates during a disaster.

Download the free First Alert 5 Weather App for your iOS or Android device to get the latest headlines and news across Colorado.
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