By Marcy Stamper
As wildfires spread throughout the county, enveloping some 625 square miles and prompting evacuations for almost every town – and vast areas in between – people got evacuation orders via cell phones, landlines and text messages; by talking to neighbors; and simply by looking out the window.
Often residents had to piece together multiple sources of information. On French Creek, above the town of Methow, where much cell service and radio stations were out for several days, neighbors took turns keeping watch from a high vantage point and then driving to a neighbor’s house for that person to call the others.
The Okanogan Complex Fire tested the county’s new mass-notification system, which uses software to alert people to evacuations and other emergencies via landlines, cell phones and email.
The county chose the Everbridge notification system in February after examining several companies that offer what is informally called “reverse 911,” said Maurice Goodall, Okanogan County’s emergency manager. (Reverse 911 is a trademarked name.)
The county obtained a grant for the service under the former emergency manager, said Mike Worden, chief deputy of special operations and communications for the Okanogan County Sheriff’s Office.
This spring communications staff ran a few tests, sending messages to themselves and their spouses. They also tested Everbridge with people in the Chiliwist, who had expressed interest after their community was devastated during the Carlton Complex Fire last year, said Worden.
The Chiliwist test went pretty well, although one person pointed out that they live in a remote area without cell-phone service and are often outdoors, so relying on landlines is not always effective. Another suggested the county use helicopters with loudspeakers, said Worden.
“On the other hand, it’s a tug-of-war,” said Worden. “Do you want the government in your back pocket? How much notice do you want from the government?”
Most people accept that if they call 911, their phone number will be visible to dispatchers, he said. But people may be more protective about their cell phones. “They don’t want telemarketing calls on their cells. There’s a different expectation of privacy,” said Worden. The county decided to ask people to supply these additional numbers if they want to be notified that way.
The county started with basic information — a database of all personal and business landlines in the county, purchased from the phone company, The numbers are protected so that they can’t be sold or hacked, said Worden.
The system had its first use during the flooding on Texas Creek in May, but things were relatively quiet until the last two weeks, said Worden.
Concern and confusion
Evacuation orders typically come from first responders — fire chiefs and law enforcement personnel on the scene — and are implemented by emergency management, said Goodall.
“I was typing as fast as I could — all the evacuations were happening at the same time,” he said at a community meeting in Omak on Aug. 26.
But the need to get warnings out quickly sometimes resulted in confusion and stress. When the Twisp River Fire erupted, they issued a general call to get out, said Goodall. “We had a situation — we killed three firefighters. Things were going so fast that [Okanogan County Fire District 6 Chief] Don Waller said we had to evacuate the town,” and then the area kept growing, said Goodall.
Over the next few days, they began specifying areas within the evacuation zone, but that confused people further, and made others nervous as to whether risks had changed.
“I’m deeply concerned that you think the alert system worked well,” said a woman at the community meeting. “Omak only got weather alerts.” Goodall said Omak had not been evacuated because fire crews had instructed them to stop at the northern city limits.
“I think the system worked very well. Some alerts may have gone to a larger area than we wanted, but people were at least aware,” he said.
French Creek resident Lorah Super said some people panicked because of the “huge, blanket notification.”
“I have no complaints about the emergency notification,” said Super, who said it was helpful that emergency management has begun listing individual roads and drainages. “I understand the rationale was ‘better safe than sorry.’”
“I still feel having your own local system is more reliable than depending on officials — they can only be so many places at once,” she said.
When information comes to emergency management, Goodall draws a circle on a map to identify the area and individual houses to evacuate. He types up the order, sends it to radio stations, media and fire officials; and then to everyone in the notification system. If a person does not confirm receipt of the message, the system cycles back and tries again.
Some people said they never got the alerts, and others said they were warned about areas nowhere near their home.
The software’s voice-translation feature also converted Goodall’s written alert into a voice message, but some people said they had trouble understanding place names. When there was time, a staff member recorded the message.
They also copied the evacuation orders to post on Facebook but, with things happening so quickly, those posts were sometimes delayed, said Goodall.
Goodall conceded that changing the county’s evacuation terminology just a week before the crisis — abandoning numbered evacuation levels in favor of plain language — had contributed to the confusion. The main message was to get people to take responsibility for themselves and not to wait for door-to-door evacuations, he said.
The county is now using a combination of numbered evacuation levels with descriptive language.
“We will reevaluate it — we need to make sure it’s understood. Suspending 1, 2 and 3 caught a lot of people off-guard,” said Goodall.
“We did a lot of level 3s — leave immediately. People may think we did it prematurely, but if we wait till the fire gets to you, it’s too late,” he said.
County managers also met with ranchers to let them know the fire was approaching so they had time to move their animals.
Emergency managers are trying to find the best way to reach the largest number of people. Posting signboards in a central location is time-consuming and not at the house from which people need to evacuate, said Goodall.
While emergency managers want people to leave so they and first responders are safe, state law gives people the right to stay and protect their property, said Goodall.
Gov. Inslee issued a statement last week urging people to heed evacuation orders. “If you choose not to evacuate, you must understand that emergency services will not be able to assist you. Your life may be at risk. Firefighters will not be allowed to enter the area,” he said.
Emergency operations center
The county took over the commissioners’ hearing room early on for its emergency operations center (EOC) and kept it running 24 hours a day at the height of the crisis. The EOC handled 700 calls on some days, said Goodall.
Initially the EOC was staffed by county employees and volunteers, but soon Goodall called for a state-level incident management team.
Some callers were not reassured when operators weren’t familiar with an area and couldn’t say if they were covered by an evacuation order. Because even local people don’t know all the drainages and creeks, everyone was instructed to ask for landmarks, said Goodall.
Upgrades to county phone systems in the past year enabled the EOC to have five phones that can transfer calls and take messages, whereas last year they had to make do with four old-fashioned phones that were just busy when in use, said Worden.
The county has heard there was displeasure with the way the EOC operated, said Worden. “In a disaster, not everything is likely to go well,” although he said it was smoother than last year. He acknowledged that there is room for improvement.
Super said she’d like to work with other citizens and county government to improve the system. “It’s going to take some brainpower to figure out how to do this better — it’s very complex,” she said.
Many individuals and organizations looked to Facebook to get and share information. But Facebook was not designed for this function and could be cumbersome.
Emergency management directed people to Facebook for current updates and tried to “pin” vital information like evacuations to the top of the page, but sometimes those posts got bumped, said Goodall.
The county also dedicated a phone line at the EOC for information in Spanish and maintained a Spanish-language Facebook page.
The Methow Valley News also used Facebook for breaking news, but last week Facebook changed settings without warning, requiring people to log in before they could read any posts. Facebook responded quickly to complaints and reversed the changes, said online media manager Darla Hussey.
Two local residents set up a Facebook page where they posted everything they heard on the police scanner. “Whoever those two ladies were — they were better than any phone call. It was real-time information,” even though the page became unwieldy as more people posted comments, said Super.
Emergency manager criticized for absence
Goodall has been criticized by some members of the public and the media for leaving the area as the fires raged. Goodall said he left the county for a little over 24 hours to attend his daughter’s wedding near Spokane, but that he was in touch with county commissioners by phone the whole time. He said he would not have left if the state incident-management team had not been in place.
“I take 100-percent responsibility for everything that’s happening here, and for leaving,” said Goodall. “If one man can’t leave the post, there’s something wrong.”
Other communications upgrades
Since last year, Okanogan County has replaced the antiquated radio computers in its dispatch center, said Worden.
There is also a commitment of $2.25 million from the state for an upgrade to communications networks so that Okanogan and Ferry counties can run each other’s systems in an emergency, said Worden.
Still on the wish list is a larger dispatch center. The current space accommodates only four dispatchers. During the height of the fires, they could have kept twice as many busy, said Worden.
The county also hopes to upgrade radios for emergency responders and utility crews so that they can all talk to one another, instead of driving to where they can get a cell signal, said Worden.