Brain Food: How The Slide Fire Changed Community Preparedness

May 21, 2015

KNAU's Slide Fire series continues with a special installment of Brain Food. In early May of 2014, Coconino County emergency responders practiced a community disaster exercise. At the time, none of the participants knew just how soon they'd have to use it in "real time".

Robert Rowley, director of the Coconino County Department of Emergency Management, points to the area in Oak Creek Canyon where thousands of firefighters battled the blaze
Credit KNAU/Bonnie Stevens

Robert Rowley is the Director of the Coconino County Department of Emergency Management and oversaw last year's drill. "There were 3 things we wanted to test," he says, "establishing incident command and communications with the Emergency Operations Center right away. We wanted to practice a rapid no-notice evacuation scenario, and we wanted to work on our multi-agency radio communications".

And it's a good thing they practiced because 2 weeks later that scenario became a reality when the Slide Fire broke out in Oak Creek Canyon. Rowley says, "One of the things that we had in play during the Slide Fire was the need for a rapid evacuation, no notice. So, we had no time to plan for evacuating the community." He adds, " Nine times out of ten in a wildfire, the first thing you do is look at a map and say, 'where might this go, and what communities might be affected."

Rowley says good communication is key during emergency situations. And technology - like the county's Code Red Cell Phone Alert System - has become an important way to get the word out. "We can notify one square block of the city," Rowley says, "or we can go all the way out to notify the entire county all at once. It has that capability. It's all GIS map-based."

Since last year's Slide Fire, county emergency officials are working to improve communications even more by adding the same technology used in the Amber Alert System. "We have a tremendous number of tourists and visitors to Coconino County and the Flagstaff area," Rowley says, "how do you  notify them? They don't live here. Well, that's one way we can do it besides radio and television, wireless emergency alerts is a way we can get them."

Despite all the latest technology and our inability to truly predict the movement of a forest fire, Robert Rowley says there's one emergency practice that still works the best: "The most thorough way is going door-to-door, and that's why we still do it. I can't see us ever NOT doing that. We want to make sure we've dotted every I and crossed every T to make sure everybody gets emergency information."