Pitkin County is changing its system for alerting people about everything from traffic accidents and road conditions to wildfires and areas that need to be evacuated.
With the revamped Pitkin Alert launching Monday, the Aspen-Pitkin County Communications Center hopes residents will, in turn, tell them when they’ve got the message. A new facet of the program will ask recipients to reply when they receive emergency messages such as evacuation notices, which will help responders know which residences to focus on in an emergency.
Users of the current system must sign up to continue getting the alerts, which come via email, text, direct calls to cell or landline phones, and TTY for the hearing impaired. Pitkin Alert will remain a free service targeted at locals, second homeowners, visitors and anyone else who can benefit from receiving the information, a communications center press release says.
An Aug. 4 wildfire near Basalt highlighted some of the shortcomings of the current Pitkin Alert, which uses a two-fold system. The geographic-based part of Pitkin Alert called the landlines in a neighborhood near the fire to tell residents to evacuate, while notices were also sent out through the other methods to everyone who had signed up for the service.
Some people reported that the voicemail the Pitkin Alert system left was garbled, while others with landlines neither answered nor had a voicemail system set up to record the directive.
The first system, which is able to center on telephone landlines in certain neighborhoods for targeted emergency messages, will be incorporated into a singular Pitkin Alert program, said Bruce Romero, the county emergency communications director. In the past, the general email and text notifications were a separate system from the geographically based emergency notifications.
But it wasn’t the Basalt fire that spurred the change, he said.
The county was already looking at new systems by that point because “we were not satisfied with the service being provided on our geographically based system,” Romero said.
The geographic data from 21st Century Communications, the company the communications center has used for years, was inadequate.
“We wanted to share our geo-files from our GIS department with them at no charge, but they refused to sign” the county’s nondisclosure agreement, Romero said.
The company couldn’t guarantee that it would keep the files confidential because it used an outside mapping company that could potentially profit by selling the data.
“We had to find a new company,” he said. “That was the real catalyst.”
Everbridge, the new firm the communications center is employing, hosts its own mapping program.
“So they can take our maps, load them into their system, and they’re not giving them away,” Romero said.
With more than 19,000 landline phones within the county, the changeover has been a huge amount of work, he said.
The process involves converting 911 data the county receives from the Century Link phone company and getting it to match the geographic files within the county. Mary Lackner, director of the joint city and county’s geographic information system (GIS) department, is assisting in the transfer.
The 19,000 figure is inflated because it includes many sites with multiple phone lines. Romero said he’s not interested in fax lines and the like, just the best way to get the message to those in a stricken area.
He said he hopes the communication goes both ways.
The new Pitkin Alert will ask for a response from the person receiving it in emergency notification situations. The system will wait a certain amount of time to hear back from members before it moves to the second-highest prioritized contact. The levels of how users should be contacted is established when they sign up at pitkinalert.org.
Responding to a text or an email tells authorities that someone knows what’s happening and precludes the system from moving to the next contact a user has established, Romero said.
“You are asked to respond,” he said, through a text back or responding to an email. “We would like to know if people are really receiving these messages, especially in an emergency situation.
“It could be something to clue us in that we need to take action” on a particular residence.
Half of the 3,300 people in the existing Pitkin Alert have signed up for the new system, Romero said.
“We’re trying to make sure we don’t lose any members from our old Pitkin Alert,” he said. “We’re going to get all 3,300 memberships transferred over. We already have 50 percent, which I think is terrific in just over a week. We will get 100 percent.”
Three alerts sent out in recent days on the old system told users about the transition. The communications center is also buying ads in newspapers and on the papers’ websites, and every RFTA bus will have an ad about the new system.
In addition, Romero said he will help lead a presentation at the Aspen Senior Center near the hospital. Seniors are a target group that he wants to ensure is well-informed.
Overall, “I think it will be without a doubt a better system,” he said.