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BOULDER, Colo. (KDVR) – Although there have been many delays during the implementation process, a new emergency alert system should be working in Boulder County by April, according to the director of the Boulder Office of Disaster Management.

“If we can get everything done earlier than that, we sure as heck are going to go with it,” said Mike Chard, who explained that April is traditionally a more hazardous time of year for disasters compared to others.

Chard said the City of Boulder would likely have its new system implemented ahead of the rest of the county.

Issues with emergency alerts for the Marshall Fire

Many people who evacuated from the Boulder County area during the deadly Marshall Fire said they never received a telephone alert from the current alert system to warn them of the dangerous fire situation that had unfolded in the high winds.

However, Chard said several systems were working to warn people, including emergency officials who were going door to door.

“There wasn’t nothing being done,” said Chard. “That’s definitely not the case. For some people, though, that didn’t get an alert, I’m sure it feels that way, and that’s why it’s also important that we have door-to-door searches.”

Chard explained that a Wireless Emergency Alert system that could mass-message people in a particular geographic zone – regardless of whether they signed up for the service – would have been a useful tool when the fires ignited, but the implementation was delayed for various reasons.

EOC’s responsibilities, FEMA’s involvement

Chard said Boulder’s Emergency Operation Center – which is working to implement the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s Integrated Public Alert and Warning System – has many responsibilities that do not include emergency alerts.

“We’re not here launching those alerts,” he said. “Our role is to try to help get that capability into the county, and that’s where we started the journey.”

Chard said when the initial discussion about implementing IPAWS arose, EOC approached 911 centers and said, “‘Can you get this onboarded?’ And the desire was there, but it’s a capacity issue.”

Chard blamed retention, hiring, training, local disasters – including the Boulder shooting – and COVID as reasons for the delays.

The EOC operates separately from the 911 centers – where calls come in and emergency alerts go out, he said.

“The EOC handles all of the decisions that the incident commanders are making,” he said. If they do evacuate, “there are shelters that are needed, or we have to create animal sheltering, or we need to get transportation services to help evacuate a long-term care facility.”

Chard said even when the Wireless Emergency Alert system is fully implemented, “there will still be people during a disaster that will not get an alert for a variety of reasons, and that will still require door to door capability to go in and make sure everyone is out,” he said.

According to FEMA, there are no deadlines for an entity to implement the IPAWS tool.

Implementing enough training is essential and crucial, said Al Kenyon, the customer support branch chief for FEMA’s IPAWS program.

Earlier this month, for example, Kenyon said someone in Missouri accidentally sent a statewide alert “from Gotham City, and the vehicle was described as the Joker’s car – purple and green,” he said. 

“Mistakes can happen, so it’s very important that proper policies, procedures, and training is all in place before you stand up an alerting facility – particularly for an urban area – where many, many people can be affected,” he said.

Kenyon said when everything is working properly, FEMA will take the messages from the “alert originator” and eventually pass them to the wireless carriers. “An alert originator can specific a targeting polygon, an area for the alert to be delivered to, and it’s passed to the carriers,” he said.

“People with newer phones that have the capability of figuring out whether they’re inside or outside the area will only receive the message if they’re within a 10th of a mile of the described area,” he said. 

It requires people to get newer phones, said Kenyon. He said people who are unsure if they have compatible phones with the WEA 3.0 system, can check with their wireless carrier.

It is possible someone who is not in an evacuation zone could get an alert, Kenyon said.

“The older phones don’t check to see whether they’re inside the targeted area or outside the targeted area. When they receive the alert, they let the people know that they’ve received it. The newer phones do this additional checking,” he said.

Kenyon said this issue occurred in Arapahoe County recently, with a boil water advisory that was dispersed to a much wider area than necessary.

“They had a well-formed alert,” Kenyon said, “but because of the delivery mechanism. It goes to a cell tower. All the phones connected to that particular cell tower received the alert.”