How EC Alerts fit into Eagle County’s emergency response
How it works, who runs it and why it’s so critical to the community’s emergency response
Whether it’s a fire, road closure, accident, or some other emergency, the various first responder agencies across Eagle County jump into action, assuming their respective roles and working to resolve whatever situation arises. However, a critical part of the emergency response is alerting, warning and communicating with the residents and visitors across the valley.
For this function, the primary method is through EC Alerts.
“It’s essential,” said Marc Wentworth, director of the Vail Public Safety Communications Center. “In these days, with the drier climate that we’ve had and the wildfires that we’ve had, we have to have some way to notify people when those emergencies are going to affect them.”
Of course, the system can be utilized for alerts outside of wildfires and natural disasters, including missing persons, severe weather, and more. On a nearly daily basis, it is used primarily for alerting about traffic incidents and road blockages.
Still, the emergency function is at the heart of the system: “We have to have some way to tell people things are coming,” Wentworth said.
Support Local Journalism
EC Alerts is built on Everbridge software, and provides customized alerts via email, the Everbridge app, and in the case of some emergencies, text. It is used for all of Eagle County within the Eagle River Valley; residents living in the portions of the county in the Roaring Fork Valley (El Jebel and Basalt) are recommended to use Pitkin County Alerts instead.
“There are various parts of (the county’s alert, warning and communication process) owned by various different organizations, but one of the most important parts of that alert and warning function is the EC Alert system. That system is our only guaranteed way to make sure that we’re reaching members of our community in the way that they want to be reached,” said Birch Barron, Eagle County’s director of emergency management.
This county department is tasked with making sure that all roles in an emergency situation are clearly defined, carried out and that every essential function has an owner, Barron said.
In the case of EC Alerts, this essential function rests with the Vail Dispatch Center. According to Barron, the system is funded, implemented and directly overseen by the center.
So, how does it work?
“Every alert that you get comes from dispatch,” Wentworth said.
Using the example of the Eagle River Fire — the 27-acre fire caused by a two-vehicle accident on Thursday, Sept. 7, that spurred several road closures and gridlock in Wolcott and the neighboring communities — multiple local and state agencies were called in to respond.
This included fire agencies such as the Greater Eagle Fire Protection District, Eagle River Fire District, Gypsum Fire, and Eagle Valley Wildland as well as Eagle Police, Eagle County Sheriff’s, Colorado Department of Transportation, and more.
These agencies were all dispatched by the Vail Dispatch Center.
“None of those agencies that are being dispatched work for the same chain of command as the dispatch center. They’re usually dispatching agencies that are independent governments or governments outside of their own, but this dispatch center makes sure that all of the right units for the right jurisdiction for the right type of emergency are dispatched,” Barron said.
This, Barron added, makes the center the “ideal point to push out those emergency alerts for the community.”
These dispatchers are often “the first ones to know we’ve got a road closure at this point, or a fire or a gas leak or a flood,” Barron said.
Wentworth said that after the initial 911 call comes in, the dispatchers build that call into their own system and send the appropriate local and state responders. And it’s not until the responders get on the scene that the dispatch then sends the notification via EC Alerts.
“We try really hard to vet things, so if we have a crash on the interstate, we wait until we have responders on scene before we send anything out because we don’t want to guess at what the situation really is,” Wentworth said.
“We wait until somebody does get on scene to give us — they call it a windshield size up — so basically the first thing they see, they call that out over the radio. And that’s when we decide to send an EC alert.”
Over the years, the system has been refined and improved to make it as efficient as possible. According to Wentworth, this has included cutting down the messages to the essential information.
“We don’t send updates, so we take all the information that we have and put it in as concisely as we can,” he said, adding that this means including what the incident is and a possible cause where appropriate.
In the case of the Eagle River Fire, the first EC Alert included the blockage — the closure of both directions I-70 and Highway 6 initially — as well as an indication of what the blockage was: “motor vehicle accident and wildland fire.”
There are a few things that dispatchers avoid adding, including estimated time to reopen to reduce the margin for error and to minimize the number the updates required.
For most situations, dispatch has pre-formatted alerts built into the Everbridge system to increase efficiency in all emergency situations.
One of the benefits is this creates consistency for residents.
“Consistency is really important in an emergency, especially as the community gets used to seeing the same types of messages — they know how to read them, they know how to understand them — so making sure that they’re just set up for dispatch as templates for messages is critical,” Barron said.
The templates also allow for certain alerts to be sent out in both English and Spanish.
It also creates an opportunity to increase response time, which is critical in emergencies. For example, Wentworth said that the Eagle County Wildland team and the county’s fire chiefs created evacuation zones throughout the valley. Maps of these zones are built into the system.
“Now, instead of a fire incident commander calling us and asking to evacuate such and such road and such and such cross street and 2 miles either side of that, they have those zones and they can just call us and say, ‘I need to send an evacuation notice to zone one-two,’ for instance,” Wentworth said. “We have that in the system, we just go in and pull that zone up and there’s a pre-formatted message that goes with it and we send that out.”
Room for improvement
While the system serves its function well, Barron acknowledged that the county partners are “constantly evaluating its functionality and making improvements.”
Looking to the future, there is one improvement needed that stands out to Barron.
“We need to make a real serious effort to make sure that it’s accessible to people (for which) English is not their primary language,” Barron said. “We know that people who have any barriers to accessing emergency information — which language is definitely one — are more likely to have more significant impacts during emergencies.”
And, it’s something the center is hoping to improve upon soon. Wentworth mentioned that dispatch is currently looking to purchase additional software that will work with the Everbridge app to translate all alerts into not only Spanish but over 180 different languages.
While these agencies are always looking to make it more efficient and reliable, another area of focus is just getting people signed up.
“The more people we have who are signed up, the better it would be for the emergencies that we need to notify on,” Wentworth said.
Barron said that EC Alerts currently has around 49,000 contacts, just below the county’s last census population count of 55,727. However, the contacts don’t just include primary residents, but second-home owners, guests and more. Plus, the population of the county fluctuates on weekends or in peak season. So while participation is “strong,” Barron acknowledged there are always more people that need to sign up.
“Signing up for EC Alert is the only way to make sure that public safety can reach you in the way that you prefer to be reached, whether that’s cell phone, multiple cell phone, cell phone, and landline email,” Barron said.
To sign up, edit your preferences or learn more about the system, visit ECAlert.org.