BOULDER, Colo. — The City of Boulder is introducing a new emergency alert system capability, which will reach more people in the case of an emergency.
The new system, which was announced and is in effect as of Monday afternoon, will allow both police and fire departments to send Integrated Public Alert Warnings (IPAWS) to the public. The alerts will be similar to Amber Alerts and National Weather Service emergency notifications, where cell phones will light up and ring with an alarm if a person is in a specific geographic area. When it is possible, the alerts will include any necessary instructions, including evacuation orders. Unlike prior systems, residents and visitors do not need to opt-in to the service.
Previously, the city's alert system was limited to landlines and cell phones that had been registered through Everbridge to opt-in to certain alerts.
While residents can continue to use the Everbridge system — something the city is still recommending — using IPAWS and Wireless Emergency Alerts (WEA) will provide the latest urgent information to out-of-town visitors, unhoused individuals and others in the impacted area.
The amount of detail provided in each WEA will depend on the user's cell phone, as some older models will receive shorter messages limited to 90 characters and more updated phones can receive messages up to 360 characters long, according to the city.
The city-county Office of Disaster Management (ODM) is responsible for the WEA service. The office is also working to develop a bi-lingual protocol.
The ODM has been working for a few years to implement a WEA system in the county. It secured the license and certification from the state in late 2019, according to a flyer on the Boulder County's emergency notification system. The office did note that WEA systems sometimes send out notices to people who may not be affected by a hazard, which could lead to congestion during an evacuation. The county has been delayed rolling out the system because of other disasters, including the Calwood Fire, the COVID crisis and the Boulder King Soopers shooting.
Questions and concerns about Boulder County's alert system were abound after the Marshall Fire disaster on Dec. 30, 2021. The fire burned more than 1,000 homes in a matter of hours in Superior, Louisville and unincorporated Boulder County. It did not burn in the city of Boulder.
In early January, questions started surfacing about the response and public notifications. During a Louisville City Council meeting early in the year, some residents in the affected areas told officials they never received any evacuation notices during the fire. In response, the county office of emergency management sent out details about the Everbridge emergency notification system, when each notification went out for which areas, and its plans to further expand the emergency notification system this year.
Boulder County Office of Disaster Management Director Mike Chard spoke exclusively with Denver7 three weeks after the Marshall Fire, where he acknowledged that many residents said they never received an alert.
“The whole story begins with everyone deserves to get — and rightfully so, should get — an evacuation order regardless of what phone you have,” Chard said. “Whether you're opted in, whether you have a landline. That's our goal here in Boulder County. It will be after this system; it has been before. And that's what we're driving towards.”