Damage from the Marshall Fire in Boulder County on Dec. 30. Credit: Anthony Albidrez

On the morning of Dec. 30, Michael Reese got a call from his brother who said there was a fire in Boulder. Reese and his girlfriend drove a few blocks from his grandparent’s house off South Boulder Road, where the pair live, and saw smoke in the distance. 

But Reese didn’t think much of it until his aunt, who lives next door, came sprinting toward the house yelling at them to evacuate. He looked up and saw the flames. Minutes later they were in the car, inching away from the blaze through gridlocked traffic. Around the same time, clouds of smoke reached the Louisville neighborhood of Dan Reese, Michael’s father, who quickly fled. 

No one in the Reese family received an emergency alert on their phones as the Marshall Fire tore across the Boulder County neighborhoods where they live. Michael’s aunt saw the fire and tuned into the police scanner — where she learned of the evacuation, and then took off running. 

Emergency alerts are an important component of disaster response, and will only grow more critical as climate change brings more frequent and dangerous extreme weather. But during the fire many Boulder County residents like the Reese family were wondering why they didn’t receive any, despite being in the mandatory evacuation zone. 

Jon Carroll, who lives a half-mile north of a mandatory evacuation zone, was also concerned. 

“Several of my neighbors and I were hesitant to go to sleep that night because we were worried we wouldn’t get any kind of warning from the city if the fire changed directions and we needed to evacuate,” says Carroll. He signed up for emergency alerts, but only found out about the fire after trying to place an online order from the Target in Superior. 

“Many of us shop, go to school and recreate in the surrounding communities, making this kind of alert relevant for everyone,” he says. “This felt like something they should have sent a text alert to the broader community about.”

Confusion swirls around emergency alerts

In the aftermath of the Marshall Fire, it’s clear there was a lot of confusion around these emergency alerts. Some people received calls and texts as expected, but many didn’t know they needed to sign up in order to get the alerts. Those with landline phones are automatically registered to receive emergency calls, but people with cell phones have to opt in by registering their phone number and address through the county alert system, Everbridge

Some residents were successfully registered for alerts, like Carroll, but still got nothing. Others thought they were correctly signed up for alerts, but found out they weren’t.

“We were definitely expecting some kind of notification. We didn’t know that you had to sign up,” says Michael Reese, who remembers getting warnings and messages during the 2013 flooding. Because of that, he assumed he was set up to receive future alerts. His grandparents house has a landline phone, which is supposed to trigger an emergency call, but Reese says no call ever came in before they had to evacuate. 

Who actually gets alerts in case of an emergency in Boulder County? It depends. For the Marshall Fire, it appears that only people with addresses registered inside of the mandatory and pre-evacuation zones were sent emergency alerts in the form of a text and a phone call. 

The Boulder County Sheriff’s Department did not make anyone available to respond to the Boulder Reporting Lab’s multiple requests for comment. Instead, their offices directed us to a press release

“If an address listed on your profile is within the geographical boundary created by public safety officials for an event, you will receive information through your chosen contact paths. … In the case of the Marshall Fire, the location, wind speed, and direction were unique to the emergency and all shapes were digitally created on-the-fly by the dispatchers.” 

According to the release, 24,289 contacts were sent messages. (The total population of the City of Louisville and the Town of Superior is 33,937, according to 2019 population data.) 

If you live in an evacuation zone and didn’t receive an alert, you should check to make sure you’ve created an account and registered with the Everbridge system. If you live outside of an evacuation zone, now is a good time to check to make sure you’re set up in case of any future emergencies. 

Why isn’t Boulder County using an automatic alert system?

Since the fire started outside of Boulder city limits, the task of sending out alerts was under the county’s jurisdiction. The Boulder Reporting Lab spoke with Dionne Waugh, the Public Information Officer for the City of Boulder, for some information on how alerts have been used by the city in the past. 

Waugh says the city has sent out a handful of alerts over the past year — one in March for the King Soopers shooting that killed 10 people, one in September for a missing woman with dementia, and one in October when a mountain lion was on the loose in the Adams Circle neighborhood. Those alerts were not sent out citywide. Instead, they went to people whose registered addresses were within a certain distance (in these cases, a half-mile or less) from the incident. 

“With the mountain lion, we desperately wanted people in that area to know, but people living across town would not care and we would not want to inundate people with too many notifications. It’s a balancing act,” says Waugh. “It’s incident specific and that will vary. We definitely let people know when there is a threat to life safety, but we also don’t want to overwhelm people and become noise to the fact that people don’t pay attention.”

Waugh says the most important thing people can do is to opt in to receive alerts. “We know a lot of people don’t have landlines anymore, so unfortunately the onus is on the individual to go to your jurisdiction, whether it’s the city of Boulder or the county, and sign up to make sure you get those alerts,” she says. Waugh recommended adding both home, work and other frequented addresses to your Everbridge profile.

“We have neighbors who were saying they never heard anything — houses were burning up around them, and they finally got a call from a neighbor to get out,” says Dan Reese. “They should automatically have you registered for it, and then you could choose to opt out. It shouldn’t be an opt-in thing.”

In Denver, for example, residents don’t have to opt in to receive emergency alerts. Instead, the city relies on Wireless Emergency Alerts (WEA), which are switched on by default on smartphones. These alerts work the same way as the highly effective Amber Alerts, which have been an opt-out program since 2013. 

Other agencies can push alerts to phones automatically using WEAs, like the National Weather Service and the President of the United States. Since the option for automatic emergency alerts exists, regardless of whether someone is registered or not — and is being used by a major city just south of the affected communities — the question becomes: Why is Boulder County not using a system that ensures mass communication? 

That same system should soon be coming to Boulder, though it’s unclear when. “The Sheriff’s office is working towards incorporating a system which will allow location-based cell phone notification, regardless of a subscriber’s address or registration with the Everbridge system,” according to the press release. 

The document also stated that the County is “currently working to implement Wireless Emergency Alerts in our area” and the “near-term future of the Boulder County Communications Center will involve both Everbridge and WEA notifications.” 

The release stopped shy of saying that widespread WEA alerts were the way of the future here: “In a wildfire scenario, a WEA is likely to warn residents over a larger geographic area than intended, causing traffic congestion and egress issues for those closest to the danger attempting to evacuate.” 

This time, the Reeses were lucky. The flames came nearly to the doorstep of each of their homes, but the structures were ultimately spared. Many people, though, weren’t so lucky. “If it had happened at night, I’m sure a lot more people would have been killed. That could have been dangerous,” says Reese. “The reason we all knew we had to go was because people were awake and told us.”