Reverse-911 glitch sent wrong people packing during Oxyoke Fire

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By Pamela Lawson

When Buffalo Creek resident Vicki Porter got a reverse-911 call July 20 during the Oxyoke Fire notifying her household of a mandatory evacuation, she and her family acted immediately, filling boxes and preparing to flee.

But the family’s panic was short-lived — and unnecessary. Another call came a half-hour later saying that the first was in error: Porter’s home was one of 1,350 households that were wrongly contacted because of a glitch in the notification system.

Since the Buffalo Creek Fire in 1996, the Hi Meadow Fire in 2000 and the Hayman Fire in 2002 — all within close proximity to her community and friends — Porter and her family have lived in a heightened state of awareness.

After the first call, she stood there with her mouth open, Porter said, but she had seen smoke from the Oxyoke Fire as it rose above the trees 5 miles north of Deckers.

So the 70-year-old kicked into gear, giving family members lists of her most precious belongings that were prepared long ago during other emergencies: old jewelry, family videos, her mother’s wedding dress, sketch books, and paints and brushes that she uses as a professional artist.

Porter had amassed a collection of items at the front door by the time she got the second 911 call that notified listeners of the precise evacuation area. And that’s when Porter knew there had been a mistake.

“It’s like you would like to take the phone and scream at somebody,” she said July 22.

Cindy Cline, a day-shift supervisor with Jefferson County dispatch, confirmed that the error occurred.

“It was targeted to go out to about 150 homes,” she said July 23. “Instead it went to 1,500 — some quite a ways from the fire.”

Her department knew something was wrong when it got calls questioning the notification from as far away as Roxborough Park, she said.

Cline wasn’t working when the original calls went out and didn’t know precisely how much time passed before the corrective calls were made. Porter doesn’t remember, either, but guesses it may have been about 20 minutes.

The glitch was in the mapping program, Cline said.

The company in charge of the reverse-dialing program had just moved to a new Web-based system, Cline said, and Jefferson County happened to be one of the first activations.

The notification system is designed to “snag” a given area identified by the county, she said.

“We pick a point and draw a bull’s-eye,” Cline said. “We had done that, but it grabbed a whole bunch more homes outside the target bull’s-eye area.”

Cline said she was told that her department was “inundated” with calls from people who could not see or smell smoke, she said.

That’s when the problem was discovered and reported to Intrado Inc. of Longmont, which provides the notification services. By Monday morning, the company had identified the problem, she said.

According to the company’s website, the telecommunications provider builds and maintains emergency communications technologies for public safety and government agencies. Its products, services and systems support an estimated 200 million calls to 911 each year.

“The EPN system is not new; part of the mapping system is new,” said Jeffco sheriff’s spokeswoman Jacki Kelly. “We were on the phone in the middle of this asking the company how to work through this. The company was on board partnering with us pretty quickly.”

Porter wasn’t the only one to react swiftly in between the two reverse-911 calls.

She knows of others in her community who also began to pack up valuables. One family had visitors from out of town, and they transported those visitors to the firehouse, where they were fed alongside firefighters, she said.

Another friend who has lived through too many other fire scares wouldn’t budge.

“She went to sleep,” Porter said. “She said, ‘That’s it. I can’t handle this again. I don’t see a fire, I can’t see smoke, I’m going to sleep — shake me (if it gets here.)’ ”

The items Porter and her family hurriedly stuffed into boxes and plastic bags are still sitting by the front door, she said. It could be another three weeks before she finds the strength to empty them, she said.

“It’s still packed,” Porter said. “I’ll probably take one bag at a time and put it back.”