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.
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