Saturday, February 14, 2009

Notifying residents of an approaching fire

On yesterday's live discussion one of the issues raised was the difficulty in quickly contacting large numbers of residents who are in danger of an approaching wildland fire. During some of the Black Saturday fires last weekend in Australia there were reports that the fires were so massive and moving so quickly, pushed by 40-60 mph winds, that the fires entered some communities with little or no warning.

So, how do we notify people that they need to evacuate, or to "Prepare, Stay and Defend OR Go Early"?
  • A law enforcement officer or fire vehicle cruising the streets knocking on doors or making announcements on a public address system is a slow and inefficient method. The former director of FEMA, Michael Brown, was notified in this manner in January to evacuate from his Boulder area home when it was threatened by the Neva fire. But local emergency services also used a reverse 911 system.
  • Phone trees have been used in the past, but they can be slow, and if people are not near their phones, the system can break down. And, phone lines can be compromised by a fire.
  • Reverse-911 systems, automated dialing systems that deliver a short voice message, are becoming more and more common. These can be very effective and can send out messages quickly to large numbers of residents; some systems can even send e-mail messages too. But they are not foolproof; sometimes poorly designed systems can't handle a large enough capacity, or simply fail to function at all. And usually they can't call cell phones unless the user manually ops-in. Tulare County in California will be testing their new system soon. HERE is an example of a company that sells this service. But reverse 911 depends on a functioning phone line system which may be compromised by the fire. And cell phones may not work either, as we found out during the Alabaugh fire near Hot Springs, SD in July, 2007, when the same lightning storm that started the fire also knocked out the Verizon cell tower. One homeowner was killed in his home in that fire and 27 residences were destroyed.
  • During our live discussion here yesterday, Dick suggested that the weather radio alert system could be used, which could work well as long as everyone had one of the units, and if each one had a battery backup in case the power went out. I think most of the radios have a backup battery; but does everyone replace the battery on a regular schedule?
  • Also during our live discussion yesterday, Chris said: "Locally we have a low power AM radio station that we can update from the field by cell phone. This way, the public is always getting up to date info and it can be heard with or without electricity". Maybe Chris was referring to what is called in some areas a "Travelers' Information System", or TIS. You see (or hear) systems like these in national parks or other major tourist areas providing routine messages, or special messages if there is a ongoing incident. But don't these have a range of about a mile or so?
  • Maybe one day satellites will be broadcasting emergency messages and weather forecasts to our weather radios, keyed and customized to specific local areas. This could be more efficient than having hundreds of ground-based radio transmitters blanketing our country. If Sirius XM satellite radio service goes bankrupt, as is likely, there will be 4-5 satellites and a lot of ground-based repeaters with a lot of time on their hands.
There is no fool-proof system, but the reverse 911 system, perhaps layered with the weather radio alert system, seems to be the best thing we have going today.

But what do you think?

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