Eagle County’s alert system keeps people updated, but only if they subscribe
Alert system has database that tracks physical addresses, can send messages within a defined area
EAGLE COUNTY — There are days when the Eagle County alert system will ping your phone a lot. But that’s a good thing.
The system is run through the Vail Public Safety and Communications Center. That’s where the call goes when you dial 911. There, dispatchers will send out alerts to subscribers using an automated system.
Center Director Marc Wentworth said dispatchers have a menu of messages that provide mostly standard language. Just about anything on the highways is described as a “road incident.” Dispatchers are usually pressed for time, especially during emergencies, so subscribers don’t see much narrative beyond the name of the street or highway, and the mile marker where the incident’s been reported.
The automated system also works for weather alerts — often winter storm warnings or, in the summer, flash flood warnings — although most of those come through working with the National Weather Service.
When there are police incidents, initial reports can come in through individual officers.
Reaching specific subscribers
That’s what happened during a Dec. 7 incident in Minturn. In that case, police received a report of an armed man barricaded in a home. The report turned out to be false, coming from a person apparently hallucinating due to methamphetamine use.
Still, a report of an armed man barricaded in a house will bring a robust police response.
Over the course of a couple of hours, the alert system relayed the initial report, then followed by urging residents to stay in their homes, followed finally by an all-clear.
While those alerts went to everyone subscribing to the appropriate system categories, Wentworth said the system can be neighborhood-specific.
The alert system has a database that tracks physical addresses and can send messages within a defined area.
In the case of the Minturn incident, Wentworth said alerts can be sent to everyone in a neighborhood except the suspect address. Alerts can also be sent to just a suspect address.
The alert system is funded in a few ways. Your phone bill will show a surcharge for the Eagle County 911 Authority Board. In addition, every agency that uses Vail’s dispatch services pays based on the number of calls the center handles for those agencies.
Wentworth said dispatchers have to use some discretion in sending out alerts.
“We try not to send out things that aren’t going to affect a lot of people,” Wentworth said.
For instance, a report of a mountain lion in a neighborhood will generate an alert. A bear sighting won’t — there would simply be too many alerts.
Given the population of the valley, there are a lot of agencies. A couple — the Colorado State Patrol and the Colorado Department of Transportation — don’t use the Vail center.
But, Wentworth said, there’s a radio network used by all the agencies in the county.
There’s some overlap
There can also be some overlap. Pitkin County has its own dispatch center, which serves the Roaring Fork Valley communities of Basalt and El Jebel. El Jebel is in unincorporated Eagle County and Basalt straddles Pitkin and Eagle counties.
Pitkin County uses the same EverBridge system as Vail. In the case of the 2018 Lake Christine fire near Basalt, those two centers shared a lot of information.
“We try really hard to make sure people get the word,” Wentworth said.
Birch Barron is in his first year as Eagle County’s Emergency Manager. Barron said the county’s role in the system is to coordinate system use and be the lead in multi-agency projects.
Barron said that in addition to the parts of the system the public sees, there’s a “back end” for first responders. That includes activating the county’s emergency operations center and getting emergency information to local government officials.
Barron said while there are always improvements to make, “the system is doing what we need it to do.”
Part of refining the system has been working with other agencies, including Pitkin County, to ensure that alerts are going to the right subscribers at the right time.
But the system isn’t perfect. Barron said work needs to be done to ensure people who don’t speak English can be alerted, especially if an evacuation is ordered. Then there’s the fact that Eagle County doesn’t have consistent cell phone service beyond the Interstate 70 corridor.
Then there’s always work to do to get people to subscribe.
“We can call landlines, and we hope that captures a good number of people without cell service. And, in serious cases, emergency responders can always knock on doors,” Barron said.
While Barron and Wentworth want as many people as possible to sign up for the alerts, Barron noted that it can sometimes take a while for help to arrive.
“We’re a mountain community, and most of the population is very resilient,” Barron said. “We want people to take personal responsibility for their safety. We’re going to do out best, but we want people to be self-reliant.”
Vail Daily Business Editor Scott Miller can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 970-748-2930.
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