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WALDO CANYON FIRE: Mass emergency call system never tested

By: RYAN MAYE HANDY
July 25, 2012
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photo - Mountain Shadows residents evacuate the neighborhood on June 26, 2012. Photo by MARK REIS/The Gazette
Mountain Shadows residents evacuate the neighborhood on June 26, 2012. Photo by MARK REIS/The Gazette 

In April, no one knew if El Paso and Teller counties’ mass emergency call system would work.

That aspect of the E911 Authority Board’s Emergency Notification System had never been tested, leading the city of Colorado Springs’ top emergency manager to request that one be done.

But the test had not been done by the time a real disaster hit the Pikes Peak region — an attempt to make 118,779 calls during the worst of the Waldo Canyon fire led to jammed lines and thousands of dropped calls.

The planned test-run was for 20,000 calls.

On Wednesday, at the monthly meeting for the E911 Authority Board, which approves the budget and manages the 911 for El Paso and Teller Counties, board members debated whether or not the Waldo Canyon fire could serve as the system’s test.

“We can do another mass notification on a Saturday morning. But I cannot duplicate the call volume and phone traffic that there was the night of fire,” system manager Jim Anderson told board members on Wednesday.

The hypothetical mass-call test was being arranged when the fire struck.

During the fire, 49 separate alerts were sent out by the system to Colorado Springs, Manitou Springs, El Paso County, Woodland Park and Teller County, Anderson said.

A Gazette analysis of call records showed that more than 11,000 calls were marked as abandoned on the night of June 26, a critical time when thousands of people were evacuated at the last minute as a firestorm blew into the city, destroying 346 homes and killing two people. Twenty-eight percent of all notification calls made during the Waldo Canyon fire were placed that night, records show.

The abandoned-call rate and text and email error rare was higher that night than it was for the rest of the first week of the fire.

Although he pushed for an investigation, Anderson explained that there were a few errors in the process that the authority board had no control over. For one, Anderson suspected that a few abandoned calls were simply home phones that were not answered after their owners had evacuated. He hoped that the investigation would pin down the exact definition of an abandoned call, he said.

Also, much of the failure of the Emergency Notification System might be attributed to a lack of capacity, Anderson said. Thousands of the mass calls hit a small geographical zone, which very likely didn’t have enough capacity to handle the demand, Anderson explained.

On April 25, Bret Waters, the manager for the city’s Office of Emergency Management, asked the board to re-evaluate the Emergency Notification System — a computer program run by a private company under contract for the authority board.

According to board meeting minutes, Waters said that only the Colorado Springs Police Department 911 system struggled with the notification programing, but he wasn’t sure why. Waters then asked for a test, as he felt “that the mass notification option has never been activated so it is unknown if it will function property,” according to board minutes.

The test had been approved uninamously in April by the seven of the nine board members present. The board agreed to pay for it, , and Anderson had planned next week to review bids from companies that could run the test calls.

Instead, the failures during the Waldo Canyon fire prompted Anderson to make a different suggestion: He asked the board to approve a investigation into the system’s failures. The suggestion was approved uninamously by board members representing the Colorado Springs Fire and Police Departments, and the El Paso County Sheriff’s Office.

Anderson said he was in the process of signing a contract with an investigator, a former employee of the Public Utilities Commission, a state group that regulates such things as telecommunications and gas pipeline inspections. Anderson said the study would be complete within four to six weeks, and would cost no more than $10,000.

Contact Ryan Maye Handy: 636-0261

Twitter @ryanmhandy

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