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Boulder Co. Disaster Management director addresses concerns about Marshall Fire notifications

mike chard boulder county disaster management
Posted at 4:18 PM, Jan 20, 2022

BOULDER, Colo. -- The director of the Boulder County Office of Disaster Management sat down exclusively with Denver7 Thursday and addressed questions and concerns about emergency notifications on the day of the Marshall Fire.

Director Mike Chard spoke about the fact that hundreds never received an evacuation notice.

“Let’s start with this – What happened that day?” asked Denver7 reporter Russell Haythorn. “The day of the Marshall Fire. Why weren't people notified?”

“Well, I can speak to the emergency alert,” Chard said. “There's a couple different layers to this. A lot of folks say they didn't get a notification. There are reasons for that. One is, at the time of the fire, we did not have our wireless emergency capability implemented.”

"So, should it have been implemented prior to that day?” Haythorn asked.

“It's a fair question. I wish we had it, for sure, but we were working on it."

MORE: 'I hope this event serves as a wake-up call': Fire chief pleads for change following Marshall Fire

Chard says Boulder has two notification systems.

One is called Everbridge, which residents sign up for based on their address.

The second is a FEMA system called IPAWS, which, like an Amber Alert, sends a wireless emergency notification to everyone in geographic polygon. Lines are drawn based on who's in danger.

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.

"You've been delayed because of those?” Haythorn asked.

“Exactly, Russell,” Chard said. “So, I had no idea we would be experiencing the year we were in 2020."

“What about those who will watch this interview and say, 'You can't blame other disasters for not having this piece implemented,'” Haythorn asked. “Is that a fair question, Mike? And, why wasn't it?”

“It's a fair question and it's about capacity,” Chard said. “You're running disasters. You can't sit here and build a new capability while you're trying to take care of all the life safety issues in our county. Those are substantial reasons why there were delays built in over the 2020 year and into 2021."

Chard says the system also isn't perfect for evacuations. It could create a bottleneck on roads if implemented too broadly.

“There needs to be space for people to go towards, to get away from here,” Chard said. “If everyone is evacuating at the exact same time, and sometimes that's going to happen because the area needs to be very large there at the risk. If there's no space to push people, everyone gets blocked right here as this hazard's moving into them."

“Not making an excuse of why. 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.”

“So, with that in mind, was this emergency a success or a failure?” Haythorn asked. “Two people did lose their lives. There must be regrets for that?”

“Absolutely,” Chard said. “So, success or failure, I'd like to say — we're fortunate. Time of day, nighttime evacuations always go worse.”

Chard says the county was already working to implement IPAWS this spring.

“People think you did sit on it and do nothing,” Haythorn said. “What do you say to them?”

“We haven’t been sitting here doing nothing,” Chard said. “We’ve been responding and building other systems for other residents in our community that were under direct threat. It’s not that we just sat on this and were doing nothing.”

Chard says IPAWS should be in place by April of this year.

The siren system also didn’t activate that day in Boulder County. The system has six settings and wildfire isn’t one of them.

“When do the sirens go off?” Haythorn asked.

“The type of hazards would be severe storms – that would be lightning and hail, flash flooding, tornadoes. There’s a setting for canceling the siren once it goes off, a test and then one for hazardous materials because you have railways and the highway,” Chard said. “We could add something or take something away is where it sits.”

As for the overall response, Chard believes the criticism is fair, but also believes his team responded well.

“We don’t steer away from our problems here,” Chard said. “We’re going to find out where we had our successes. We’re going to find out where there are weaknesses in our system and then we’re going to go fix them.”

Denver7 has included the full interview with Mike Chard in the player below:

Full video: Boulder Co. Disaster Management director discusses emergency notifications