The Colby Fire started on Jan. 16, 2014 in the foothills above Glendora, eventually burning 1,962 acres. Fanned by the strong Santa Ana winds, the fire destroyed five homes, injured one person, and forced the evacuation of 3,600 people. A post-fire assessment of the burn area shows that a portion of the city is susceptible to debris and mud flows during rain storms for the next three to five years. This prompted Glendora to develop a color-coded alert system and multi-faceted outreach plan to prepare the community for future emergencies.

Although there were many favorable factors at play during the Colby Fire — lighter traffic during the start of the fire, availability of water-dropping airplanes, and no conflicting fires to detour resources from the area — the city’s preplanning was invaluable. Still, Glendora’s leaders saw opportunities to fine tune the city’s emergency outreach.

The city grappled with how to communicate the progress of emergency services with the community and media during potential mudslide events in an efficient, timely and wide-reaching manner.

A color-coded alert system, consisting of green, yellow, orange, and red, was developed to explain parking restrictions, evacuation protocols, and re-entry protocols, as well as an educational component for those unable to evacuate.

Automated alert status changes are made by using the rules wizard in Microsoft Outlook, allowing select personnel to change the color status instantly by sending an email message with a specified keyword. Using an application called If This, Then That (IFTTT) allowed to the city to automate status alert changes through social media outlets, including images and text.

A webpage specific to the fire and mud slide-affected areas serves as an information portal for citizens. It features the color-coded alert status, frequently asked questions, an impact area emergency alert signup form, temporary railing information, a media center, restoration and preparedness information, and post-storm assessment reports. Resource links connect residents to our varied preparedness partners, including the United States Geological Survey, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and Los Angeles County Public Works and Fire.

The city created a Colby Fire Impact Area, which comprises nearly 1,000 homes that could potentially be affected by dangerous debris and mud flow, and sends messages through Nixle, a service for local police departments, county emergency management offices, and municipal governments to connect with local residents by sending important text, website, and email notifications. Glendora surveyed residents to obtain data for the notifications, including names and all available contact information for everyone in each household, as well as a section for any family members that required assistance in evacuating.

During the morning of the Colby Fire, two dispatchers answered 397 calls between 5 and 9 a.m., which is nearly a 700 percent increase from normal activity. Since then, a social media team was created to inform the public, media and public safety partners of current events, status updates on critical incidents, and current alert level.

The city developed a mobile application to share photos taken in the field which are tagged with a location, date and time. Pictures are emailed to a designated address and processed by another Outlook rule. The end result is a live feed of pictures in the city’s Emergency Operations Center to track storm progression.

Press releases are posted to city’s website, which are automatically distributed by RSS feed and e-Notification, and the city’s Facebook and Twitter pages. Press conferences are covered by city staff, with key points distributed through real time tweets, as well as video recorded to post on YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, and the city’s website media center.

Before the Colby Fire, the city’s social media reached between 200 to 2,000 people weekly. During the week of the first storms following the fire (Feb. 24 through March 2, 2014) the city’s reach jumped to 43,000. Social media updates helped lower the volume of calls received at the dispatch center. During the peak of the storm between 5 and 9 a.m., only 92 calls were received, a 76 percent decrease compared with the same time frame during the fire.

The Colby Fire Information webpage has been a key resource for impact area updates. It tracks 2,000 to 5,000 unique page views per month and has seen over 11,000 page views since its creation.

The combination of emergency response alerts allows residents multiple choices on how they wish to receive their information.

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Originally posted at the League of California Cities.