Communicating with the public during evacuations is not easy

fire Evacuation to beach
Australia Royal Commission photo.

Officials in Australia have started a process that should be of interest to fire managers and public officials in the United States. They are establishing across the continent common terminology and symbols to indicate the level of threat from an existing wildfire or other emergency and the recommended action that should be taken. Previously there was not complete consistency among the eight states and territories, which at times led to confusion about what the level of danger was and the action that should be taken. This was especially a problem near the borders of the states when a message from across the border may use unfamiliar jargon.

Australian Warning System icons
The new Australian Warning System icons, 2020.

The Australian Bushfire Warning System is a national, three level bushfire alert system, “Advice”, “Watch and Act”, and “Emergency Warning”.  Australia recognized the inconsistency problem with their 8 states.

But not only do the 50 U.S. states have different systems for describing potential and current wildfire conditions, they also may differ city to city and county to county.

Warnings for evacuations

One of the most stressful times in a person’s life can be when they are forced to evacuate due to a wildfire, flood, or extreme weather event. This is not the time to give them ambiguous instructions, or use jargon many of them have never heard before. LEVEL TWO EVACUATION! What in the hell does that mean?  Or, EVACUATION IS AT THE SET LEVEL!  Or, WATCH AND ACT!

Recently used evacuation jargon has included:

  • Mandatory, Order, and Voluntary;
  • Level 1, 2, and 3 (or,  I, II, and III)
  • Stage 1, 2, and 3
  • Ready, Set, and Go

And I won’t even get into some that have been used for large structures such as Horizontal, Vertical, Partial, Vertical Phased, or Progressive Horizontal.

After reflecting on the massive evacuations required by wildfires in 2017 and 2018, the California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services recommended standard evacuation terminology and phrases for cities and counties to use during an emergency within the state, based in part on a White Paper written for the office in 2019.

Evacuation Order: Immediate threat to life. This is a lawful order to leave now. The area is lawfully closed to public access.

Evacuation Warning: Potential threat to life and/or property. Those who require additional time to evacuate, and those with pets and livestock should leave now.

Shelter in Place: Go indoors. Shut and lock doors and windows. Prepare to self-sustain until further notice and/or contacted by emergency personnel for additional direction.

Evacuation Order(s) Lifted: The formal announcement of lifting evacuations in an area currently under evacuation.

Hard Closure: Closed to all traffic except Fire and Law Enforcement.

Soft Closure: Closed to all traffic except Fire, Law Enforcement and critical Incident resources (i.e. Utility, Caltrans, City/County Roads etc. or those needed to repair or restore infrastructure).

Resident Only Closure: Soft closure with the additional allowance of residents and local government agencies assisting with response and recovery.

In most U.S. locations fire departments do not have the authority to issue evacuation orders. It is generally stipulated they have the expertise to know when and where it should take place but they make that recommendation to law enforcement who actually issue the order to the public, and enforce it when necessary.

Notifying citizens that they are in the path of a fire has proven to be extremely difficult, subject to technical problems and human error. Many jurisdictions have purchased reverse 911 systems that can make phone calls or send texts to warn residents in a specific area of a threat. In some cases each person has to opt-in, and if you’re a visitor you may not be notified. There are a few apps available for mobile phones, some of which are not operated by government agencies and may not be 100 percent reliable for immediate notification.

Wildfire apps and services

The U.S. Forest Service has had Wildfires Near Me in development since 2016, and it is still in beta. It’s not an app, but you can sign up online, give them an address you’re interested in, and specify to be notified by email or text message of wildfires within your desired distance from that address. It does not issue emergency notifications such as evacuation orders, but you might receive a notice each time an updated Incident Status Summary form, (ICS-209) has been entered in the NIFC system, once or twice a day, about fires in that location. Then you can go to InciWeb to get more details.

The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection has a “web-based app” but it can’t be installed from the Android, Google, or Apple app stores. It can provide some information about fires managed by CAL FIRE, but it generally has no  information about US Forest Service responsibility fires or those of local jurisdiction. Colorado also has an app, Colorado Wildfire Watch App which is designed to only be available to people in the state.

Wireless Emergency Alerts

A system in the United States, Wireless Emergency Alerts (WEA), is another possibility and can be activated by state and local public safety officials, the National Weather Service (NWS), the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (think Amber Alert), and the president of the United States. Beginning in 2019 the accuracy of the geotargeting for WEA became more precise, requiring providers to deliver the alerts to the area specified by the alert originator with no more than a 1/10 of a mile overshoot.Wireless Emergency Alerts The system uses location processing in the mobile phone itself. The handset receives the alert including the polygon of the alert area, then the phone uses its GPS-assisted location to determine whether it is inside or outside the polygon. Even if you’re far from home, but in the threat area, you should receive the alert.

On August 15, 2020 the NWS used WEA to send out the first ever real time warning about a fire tornado on the Loyalton Fire about 12 miles northwest of Reno, Nevada.

“Our forecasters were tracking the plume on radar and were seeing rotation signatures comparable to that of a tornado. Factoring in public and firefighter safety, they issued a rare tornado warning associated with a large fire,” said NWS Reno Meteorologist and Public Information Officer Chris Smallcomb. Upon inspection, NWS found evidence of three different tornado paths with the largest being a low-grade EF-2. Said Smallcomb, “NWS Reno’s fire tornado warning has resulted in a robust policy conversation within the NWS and partner agencies about the utility of such warnings in a wildland fire situation, since it had never been done before!”

Between January 1 and September 14, 2020, alerting authorities sent 1,750 WEAs. The topics were for missing children AMBER alerts, severe weather, flash floods, and COVID-19 related for mask wearing, shelter-in-place notices, social distancing, and testing facility locations.

Do we need a national fire warning app specifically for wildfires?

Australia has considered the development of a national all-hazard warning app to address the limitations of the bushfire warning apps during the 2019-2020 bushfire season. Some state or local jurisdictions in Australia have apps that can push notifications and have Watch Zone functionalities.

Australia’s Royal Commission report included this about the potential for a national bushfire warning app:

Data from state and territory governments lacks consistency and this presents a challenge to developing a national warning app. Availability of nationally consistent data is a key enabler for the development of a national app by the Australian government, or a commercial provider.

The same limitation may exist in the U.S.

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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.