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In Wake of Marshall Fire, University of Colorado Denver’s Hamilton Bean Advocates for Expanded and Improved Use of Wireless Emergency Alerts

January 24, 2022

In the wake of the Marshall Fire, the most destructive wildfire in Colorado history, two alert and warning experts, Hamilton Bean and Art Botterell, are urging state officials to expand and improve the use of Wireless Emergency Alerts (WEA). WEA is a public safety system that allows mobile device owners to receive geographically targeted messages alerting them of imminent threats to safety in their area. Hamilton Bean is an Associate Professor of Communication at the University of Colorado Denver and author of the award-winning book Mobile Technology and the Transformation of Public Alert and Warning. Art Botterell is a public warning practitioner and advocate and creator of the Common Alerting Protocol (CAP).  

The Boulder Office of Emergency Management (OEM) had not yet implemented the WEA system at the time of Marshall Fire. OEM’s notification system targets landlines but requires residents to pre-register or “opt in” their mobile devices in order to receive alerts. When a wildfire spreads so rapidly, seconds matter in an evacuation when locating pets, packing essentials, or helping neighbors, especially for populations with access and functional needs.  

“The WEA system could have been used to alert all compatible mobile devices in a defined warning area, in both English and Spanish, giving residents more lead time to prepare and evacuate,” Bean and Botterell note. “For people in Boulder County accustomed to WEA messages for hazardous weather and missing or abducted children, the lack of similar notification during the Marshall Fire was disconcerting.”  

Boulder OEM officials have explained they were preparing to implement the WEA system and have plans to deploy it in 2022. Bean and Botterell say that people’s expectations about when and how they’ll be notified of emergencies have jumped ahead of what some officials are able to provide, but officials also have a responsibility to use the mobile warning systems that are available to them. “During future emergencies, Coloradans shouldn’t have to wonder whether or not officials will issue WEA messages,” Bean and Botterell say. Therefore, they are calling on Colorado Gov. Jared Polis to help address this dilemma by doing the following:    

  • Task the Colorado Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Management (DHSEM) in developing statewide guidelines, resources, and training for the expanded and improved use of the WEA system.    
  • To complement DHSEM’s efforts, assemble a taskforce of government, commercial, nonprofit, and academic experts—and especially community members—in helping ensure effective alert and warning in Colorado in the era of climate change.    
  • Dedicate resources for ensuring that Coloradans are aware of the mobile alert and warning systems that are in use in their communities, educating them about how to ensure message reception, and preparing them for the possibility that no alert and warning messages will be issued or received. Require local officials to routinely test systems “end-to-end” in both English and Spanish.     
  • Coordinate with FEMA on WEA system best practices, as well as collaborate with state governments that have recently overhauled their alert and warning policies.   
  • Urge the FCC to require clear explanation of what different “Government Alert” notification settings mean on mobile devices, ensuring that these explanations are included on the settings screen. It should be clear that local emergency management organizations may use other systems that require separate registration.    

Attaining public safety improvements will require not only more effective use of the WEA system, but also improvements in how communities prepare for disasters. Mobile devices should help improve public safety, but they should not be the sole source for preparation. Bean and Botterell urge Coloradans—and all Americans—to take the following steps now:    

  • In the short term, identify which mobile notification systems are used by local emergency management organizations (police, fire, and emergency services). Know which systems are “opt-in” and “opt-out,” and opt into those needed. Ensure access to other sources of information during an emergency, i.e., local radio and television, or NOAA weather radio.    
  • Understand the meaning of mobile device notification settings. Just because an individual is opted into “Emergency Alerts” on their cellphone does not necessarily mean they are signed up to receive notifications from local authorities, as the Boulder County case illustrates. Check the FEMA website for information about the WEA system and your local emergency management organizations’ websites about opt-in systems. 
  • Have a plan for contacting family, friends, and neighbors during an emergency using established call/text lists or a community notification app. Decide in advance who will help the vulnerable members of your community.  
  • Find out if/when local emergency management organizations test their notification systems, and make sure to receive those tests. 
  • Anticipate the possibility that mobile systems will be damaged or unavailable during a crisis and prepare essentials for sheltering-in-place or quick evacuation.    

Opt-in systems can support public warning, but in the mobile era, the opt-out WEA system should be a primary channel. “We strongly advocate the expanded and improved use of the WEA system. However, attaining public safety improvements will require not only more effective use of the WEA system, but also improvements in how communities prepare for disasters and how we collectively take responsibility for our friends and neighbors,” Bean and Botterell explain. “Responding to disasters and emergencies is a collective responsibility. Coloradans have an opportunity to lead the way.”