KNAU and Arizona News
9:22 am
Wed July 9, 2014

Gunshots, Whistles and Cellphones: Age-Old Challenges in Emergency Communication

The Slide Fire burned more than 21,000 acres in Oak Creek Canyon and forced hundreds of people to evacuate. For more than a week in May, the fire even threatened Flagstaff, the most populous city in northern Arizona. So the folks at Arizona Public Radio wondered, “What is the city’s emergency plan, and how has it changed from its early pioneer days?”

The Slide Fire started in Oak Creek Canyon and quickly spread north toward Flagstaff. This photo was taken on the second day of the fire when it was still only a couple hundred acres in size.
Credit Ryan Heinsius


We think of Flagstaff’s historic buildings as the Hotel Weatherford (1900), the Bank Hotel (a.k.a. the MacMillan Building, circa 1886), and the Monte Vista (1927). But these structures are mere replacements for what was there before. Flagstaff’s original buildings were all made of wood, which was cheap, but also highly flammable, and fire after fire consumed portions of the town.

According to Flagstaff historian John DeGraff, fire often started in the middle of the night after a kerosene lantern was knocked over, probably during some merriment in one of the saloons. So what did they do? Well, if it got out of control, everyone ran around trying to alert the rest of the town.

“Gunshots would be ringing out,” says DeGraff. “A lot of door knocking, a lot of screaming, Fire! Fire!”

Flagstaff's old Bank Hotel, built in the 1880s, survived many fires downtown. It was one of the first non-wood buildings in Flagstaff. It's now the home of a bar and restaurant and is still owned by the descendants of the builder, Thomas McMillan.
Credit Cindy Carpien

Later, instead of using gunshots as the signal, the City of Flagstaff came up with a new warning system which they installed atop city hall. It was a large brass steam whistle, much like you heard on a train, only much louder.

The town retired the whistle after the establishment of a full-time fire department. 

The long retired steam whistle once alerted the public to fires in downtown Flagstaff. It's now housed at the town's Pioneer Museum.
Credit Ryan Heinsius

Flash forward to today, and the signal you could hear in the case of emergency might be your cellphone ringing followed by a recorded message from emergency officials.

This year, Coconino County licensed a web-based technology from a company in Florida, called CodeRED.

It’s the county’s latest attempt to streamline its emergency response plan. And it can do a lot: make automated phone calls, send e-mails, text messages and social-media alerts. The drawback is that most residents have to sign up for the service.

The Slide Fire came within three miles of Stephanie Birdwell's home south of Flagstaff. She voluntarily evacuated the day after the fire began. When she returned, pieces of blackened pine bark had drifted into her yard from the fire. She gathered them and put them in a used tire, which served as a planter, in order to nourish her plants.
Credit Ryan Heinsius

CodeRED’s parent company says that over the course of the Slide Fire, nearly 7,000 people signed on, including Kachina Village resident Stephanie Birdwell.

Birdwell is a special education teacher in Flagstaff. The Slide Fire at its height was only about three miles from her heavily wooded neighborhood outside the city.

“While I was walking my dogs, there was ash falling all around me,” Birdwell says. “That night I called the local fire department to see if there was an official update or any recommendations. At that point they told me I should be preparing for an evacuation, so I started packing.” 

A charred oak leaf Stephanie Birdwell found in her yard following the Slide Fire.
Credit Stephanie Birdwell

Birdwell voluntarily evacuated the next day. And even though she adamantly claims she signed up for CodeRED, she didn’t receive any notices.

“Honestly, the worst feeling was the night the fire had started and the uncertainty of not having information and not knowing what was going to happen,” she says.

Birdwell says she didn’t sleep well that night and woke up often to check the computer.

“I had dreams of somebody pounding on my front door telling me I needed to get out,” she says.

Members of a fire crew prepare for another day of fighting the Slide Fire.
Credit Ryan Heinsius

CodeRED told KNAU it has no record of Birdwell in its database. But, other residents of Kachina Village say they were contacted by CodeRed. So, it’s hard to know exactly what happened there.

Robert Rowley is Coconino County’s emergency manager. He acknowledges that communicating with every single person during an emergency is a constant challenge.

“Nothing that we do, whether we’re going door to door or using CodeRED or any other means that we have, if we hired a skywriter,” he says, “there is no way that we can guarantee we’re going to hit 100 percent of the people in any neighborhood.”

That’s why Rowley says cities need to keep up with changing technology when it comes to emergency management.

“In the old days of the Emergency Broadcast System, it was radio and TV. That’s how we let people know,” he says. “It’s a different world we live in now with so many different ways that people choose to get their information.”

And wildfire is unpredictable, so even assessing information isn’t easy. And then, what happens in the event of possible evacuations? It’s one thing to plan for a few small neighborhoods outside city limits. But what if the Slide Fire closed in on Flagstaff, population nearly 70,000?

“Let me tell the perspective of the people working here for 20 years in our fire department,” says Flagstaff’s fire chief and emergency manager, Mark Gaillard, “That’s the fire they never wanted to hear about.”

FEMA mandates that all cities have an emergency plan. But, the details are mostly left up to the locals. Gaillard says the moment the Slide Fire looked like it might affect Flagstaff, officials formed an emergency operations center coordinating local agencies like the county sheriff, police and the fire department.

“I wish we could have a plan that says, ‘everybody go this way,’” says Flagstaff’s deputy chief of police, Walt Miller. “The fire could start on the eastside and winds change and swirl and it’s blowing to the north,” he explains.

The challenge is to figure out how to get people out of a threatened area and firefighting equipment in. Miller says he and his staff studied maps of the city and chose the best evacuation routes. He was confident of the plan, he says. But, Miller’s main concern is always resources, specifically personnel.

“I need bodies, I need boots on the ground,” he says. “For the last several years when we were in this drought period between May and monsoon, we asked the command staff please don’t take any vacation.” 

One of several sirens located throughout Oak Creek Canyon. The system will sound in the event of an emergency in the canyon where cellphone reception is patchy and communication a huge challenge for emergency managers.
Credit Ryan Heinsius

And no one’s resting anyway. Tensions are heightened now more than ever because after wildfire, there’s danger of flooding.

With the arrival of monsoon season, officials are testing yet another emergency strategy in Oak Creek Canyon, the scene of the recent Slide Fire.

Officials know they can’t entirely rely on new technology like CodeRED, especially since cellphone reception in the canyon is patchy. So, they’re making sure the canyon’s siren system is fully functional.

Because sometimes old ideas may turn out to be the best ideas.