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Report details emergency notification problems during Waldo Canyon fire

By Scott Harrison
Published On: Feb 28 2013 02:02:04 AM CST
Updated On: Feb 28 2013 02:23:27 AM CST

Officials release report detailing problems and solutions.

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. -

Officials released a 30-page report Wednesday, ending an eight-month investigation into why thousands of evacuation notices weren't received during the Waldo Canyon fire.

The report was released by El Paso-Teller County E-911 and authored by Gary Klug, formerly a chief engineer with the Colorado Utilities Commission and currently serving as a consultant to counties on 911 matters.

Earlier reports indicated that E-911 officials used the Emergency Notification System to attempt sending 118,000 evacuation notices during the fire, with around a fifth -- 22,000 -- listed as abandoned because the notices twice failed to go through.

However, Jim Grayson, chairman of the authority, said the 22,000 messages shouldn't be considered as not being delivered, because of an error in how the messages were reported.

"If we get an answering machine, is that a successful notification?" he said.  "In our mind, it is.  If we have someone who is already evacuated from the area and they answer and hang up, is that a successful notification or not?  That's why it's hard to say whether those abandoned messages really were abandoned."

Grayson said 40 percent of the messages went to answering machines or voice mail.

The study listed three factors contributing to evacuees not receiving evacuation notices:  Some aspects of the ENS are relatively new and haven't been tested for a major disaster like the wildfire; many cell phone systems couldn't receive notices because they were overloaded with outgoing calls; and many evacuees awaiting notices never got them because they hadn't registered with the ENS.

Among people who didn't register, officials said, were William and Barbara Everett, an elderly couple who died in their burned home on Rossmere Street in Mountain Shadows.

Kacey Ridpath, an evacuee, said she was one of many who registered but received no notification.

"We only got less than five minutes before we had to evacuate, and a cop actually had to come to our residence to inform us," she said."

The report offered three solutions, one being that officials schedule a large-scale test of the ENS system.  Officials said smaller-scale tests were planned but not conducted before the wildfire.

Other solutions are that wireless providers be required to provide customer contact information to ENS-type services -- instead of that being optional -- and that there be some kind of regulation enacted on how providers gather and store information.

"We're not required to offer ENS," said Klug.  "We do it as a service, just as 911 authorities all over the state do.  We're doing it the best way we know how, but we need the providers to cooperate and make it easy for us to obtain information.  A lot of this is really beyond our scope.  It's expensive to perform upgrades and improvements.  We need state or federal regulation to make this work."

Klug says 911 officials will meet with technology professionals and try to determine the best way to improve the system.  No timetable for that was given, but Klug says he hopes it happens before another major disaster.

A positive development from the situation, officials said, is that 50,000 people registered for the ENS during the fire -- bringing the total membership to around 110,000.  However, they estimate that 200,000 still haven't signed up.

"If you haven't registered, you should as soon as possible," said Klug.  "And don't rely solely on automatic notifications.  Nothing is perfect.  There are other sources of information you can use.  Be aware and do what you need to do, to protect yourself."

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