Failed reverse-911 system may have contributed to fatalities in Colorado fire

A reverse-911 system intended to robotically call residents to advise them to evacuate may have contributed to the three fatalities during the first few hours of the Lower North Fork wildfire on March 26 southwest of Denver. All three victims called 911 during the early stages of the fire and talked to dispatchers, but they were not told to evacuate. But at that point it is possible that no decisions had been made to evacuate anyone, and during one of the calls the resident was told that the smoke they were reporting was a known prescribed fire.

About 2-1/2 hours after one of the early calls, the reverse-911 system notified some residents near one of the victims, but not the home of that victim, whose home was already in flames at that time.

The Jefferson County Sheriff’s office said that the reverse-911 system malfunctioned, and that it notified only 88% of the residents that should have been evacuated.

All of this happened during the first two to three hours of the fire, while it had a rapid rate of spread and was being pushed by very strong winds. The investigation may reveal that it would have been impossible to physically go to everyone’s house to notify them to evacuate. It may also show that the technology to notify the residents failed — or maybe not. Right now accusations are going back and forth between the Sheriff’s office and the company that provided the reverse-911 system, each blaming the other.

The video below has audio recordings of some of the calls to 911, including at least one of the victims.

More information about the Colorado reverse-911 incident.

Several days ago I called our local police department and told them that I had permanently disconnected my landline telephone and would only be using a cell phone. I asked if they needed my cell phone number so they could link it with my address in their 911 system, since the landline was no longer available. I was told “no”. I asked “why?”. The officer told me that if I called 911 from a cell phone that had GPS capability, the location of my phone would be displayed on their screen. I asked “How will your reverse-911 system know my number if my neighborhood is notified about an emergency?” The answer was “We don’t have a reverse-911 system”.

So the good news is that our reverse-911 system cannot fail during an emergency — since it does not exist. And there can be no false since of security, relying on technology that may or may not work. The bad news is that robotic phone calls will not warn anyone in our town that they need to shelter in place or evacuate during an emergency.


Thanks go out to Kelly

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Author: Bill Gabbert

After working full time in wildland fire for 33 years, he continues to learn, and strives to be a Student of Fire.

4 thoughts on “Failed reverse-911 system may have contributed to fatalities in Colorado fire”

  1. These poor people were old and had no way to leave! And for the police and fire Dept to keep telling them its it just a controlled burn is just wrong. People were being told to leave by door to door notices. I live in Woodland park and saw smoke, I looked on the internet and the local listings for wildfire notices and never once saw one! Fire services need to step up their training and keep a better watch on things, and also keep in mind that they do not know everything and listen to the public when we call saying there is a huge fire going on and I know what a controlled burn looks like and this is not one of them. This is not the first time this has happened. The Haymon fire of 2004 was started by a fire service woman and was charged for negligence. Now the fire service is claiming they had nothing to do with it. BS! I hope they look into this issue and keep and eye out! All due to LAZYNESS!

  2. Nixle might be an option in your area:

    Nixle is free and politicians like free. Getting residents to subscribe can be a struggle and getting responders to use it are other matters.

  3. 911 reverse systems have their place and I’m sure work well in some circumstances. But being aware and alert to what is going on around you is a good way to stay clear of dangerous situations. If it’s a hot dry day, with lots of wind and one smells/see’s some smoke, pehaps it’s time to look around or at least ask questions. In the end it’s the individuals responsibility to look out for their own safety.

    I live in serious hurricane country. Before the storm season starts we review the family hurricane plan and make the preperations. I watch the weather and track the storms. I sleep a lot better the night before any potential storms. Some people think we over prepare.
    Well, we got a direct hit from Hurrican Andrew 20 years ago and were not ready, lesson learned.

    Individual who live is the urban-wildfire interface need the same kind of preperations for fire. Don’t wait for action of the governmental agencies, take heed of the Boy Scout motto and “Be Prepared”.

    1. B Morgan… You make some good points. People that live in the woods need to be aware of their surroundings. But let’s be realistic here. You state that you make preparation before hurricane season. Two points I’d like to make… 1. It’s not even close to historic fire season in Colorado. 2. Hurricanes do not form to dangerous levels in hours (let alone minutes). Realize I am not blaming the reverse 911 system. Not even implying that this is unprecedented. I’m simply implying that there is a big difference between something that forms off the coast of Africa (for instance), grows and shrinks for maybe weeks before it makes landfall, and something that grows exponentially within a kilometer of the threat or exposure.


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