Reducing Our Risk

Organization: 
AirLink

Entry Overview

In a maximum of 175 words, please give an overview of your entry including the hazard, the solution and actions implemented.

Boulder County, Colorado, with its Rocky Mountain front range communities, is an urban-wildland interface.  Each of our mountain communities is unique in some way, but we share the same vulnerabilities - fire, flood and extreme weather; but, even in ordinary times, we lose power and communications. The town of Gold Hill, population about 250, is located on a ridge above three major canyons, Four Mile, Sunshine and Left Hand. In 2010, the Four Mile Fire in western Boulder County decimated much of Four Mile and Sunshine Canyons. The community of Gold Hill also lost properties, but the town itself was spared. After the fire, Gold hill organized  NeighborLink, a robust circular neighbor-to-neighbor link to ensure that everyone is quickly informed of any emergency. SafeSite then was created to provide emergency supplies and a safe place for our neighbors in the nearby canyons. 

 

When the historic floods of 2013 occurred, we not only lost power, phone and internet service, but roads leading into the mountains were completely destroyed. Deep gullies and sink holes appeared on roads, paths and fields, impeding even foot, bicycle and horse travel.

 

We found ourselves clearly needing a way to communicate during extreme weather/disasters with each other, with surrounding communities and with the authorities in Boulder. This experience led to the creation of a unique coalition between the Boulder County Emergency Operations and a group of citizen volunteers to provide robust communications using old technology, amateur radio. In Gold Hill, this volunteer group is called AirLink.

General Info
Dina
Elder
Email : 
dina.elder@gmail.com
Organization Address: 
13287 Gold Hill Road
Boulder, Colorado 80302
United States
Problem
Population Impacted: 
Boulder County 305,316 Mountain communities 17,836
Hazard: 
Wildfire
Identify the likelihood and frequency of this hazard : 
The western portion of Boulder County is a rugged, forested mountain area. On a yearly basis, this area has wildfires, floods and other extreme conditions, such as wind storms with winds in the 100 mph category. In just the past 5 years, we have had an historic wildfire, an historic flood, and several other major and minor fires and floods. For us, it’s a matter of “when”, not “if”.
Explain how vulnerable the community is to this hazard: 
Homes in this area are sited on rugged hillsides and close to streams. Fires over the years have affected the stability of the land. As we learned in the flood of 2013, roads can disappear, hillsides can collapse, and the streams become raging torrents pushing large trees, rocks, cars and other debris down stream. Today, with aggressive flood and fire mitigation programs, the mountain communities are still vulnerable, but less so than 5 years ago.
List the potential affects of this hazard: 
Many people in Boulder County depend on the roads in western Boulder county to get access to work and the necessities of life. During the 2013 flood and afterward for two months, the county, with constant attention, was able to keep only one east-west road (through Gold Hill) open for a north-south distance of almost 50 miles. Many mountain people have no or little house insurance, and easily can lose everything.
Identify how sensitive the community is to these affects: 
Boulder County has a population of over 300,000 people. The single road open for some time after the 2013 flood tallied 8,000 car trips per day when the usual number is 300. Many people forced to take this detour went many miles out of their way. Gold Hill is a keystone for communications and physical access throughout mountainous Boulder County.
Action
Preparedness Goal: 
Using Amateur radio to link mountain communities with each other and with the Emergency Operations Center (EOC) in Boulder County.
Implementing Actions: 

List specific activities or specifically what your solution does. 

The EOC (Sheriff’s Office) in Boulder County teamed with a volunteer group of amateur radio operators to create the Boulder County Amateur Radio Services (BCARES). This group is activated during emergencies and has a radio operations center in the EOC, but they also attempt to provide communications to outlying areas of the county. When BCARES offered training for people in the mountain communities, people in Gold Hill and surrounding communities became licensed radio operators. 

 

A repeater is a device that receives radio signals on a particular frequency in the amateur band and re-broadcasts a more powerful signal on a different frequency which other radio operators can receive. BCARES placed a repeater in the community of Allenspark, and local amateur radio operators established and trained a group to activate during emergencies and communicate within their community as well as with the EOC in Boulder. During the floods of 2013, this was the only link for that community to the outside world.

 

In Gold Hill’s challenging terrain, two veteran ham radio operators, 7 new hams, and other volunteers spent several thousand volunteer hours, and using donated money and equipment, established a repeater site which reaches into our local canyons using only hand held radios and transmits the signals far into the plains of Colorado. 

 

The mayors and community leaders from each of the mountain towns along with representatives from agencies in Boulder County, the Red Cross, United Way, and the State Department of Emergency Management meet on a monthly basis in order to share best practices for disaster preparedness. This group is called the Inter-mountain Alliance (IMA) and originally was formed following the Four Mile Fire of 2010. It was through this organization that each community has created it’s version of Gold Hill’s NeighborLink and plans for linking our communities together through amateur radio networks.

Solution
Describe Your Solution: 

Describe your solution. How do these combined actions reduce risk from weather-related disaster impacts?

While there is a story to tell about how the local communities, Boulder County, the state of Colorado and the U.S. Forest Service are working together to mitigate against life and property damage from weather-related disasters, this story is about how better communications make a difference.

 

During the flood of 2013, there were dozens of Army and National Guard helicopters flying constant rescue missions. There were very few places the helicopters could land and search for people due to the terrain, and in several communities, there was no way to communicate the locations of trapped people to the rescuers. In fact, there was no way to communicate within the communities except where physical contact was possible. 

 

The IMA group has become a community of leaders tying the mountain towns together and providing ideas, encouragement, and continuously improving disaster preparedness. It is through this group’s leadership that communications has become a big part of the preparedness effort.

 

By having a robust amateur radio infrastructure throughout the mountain communities and with Boulder County’s EOC, we are one step toward having time-sensitive communications in place for the next disaster. The other element is training and practice. The repeaters in AirLink, Allenspark and BCARES each have a weekly controlled practice net. There have been and will be future mock emergency drills. 

 

People who live in the mountains tend to believe they are self reliant, and it has taken some time to bring everyone into our NeighborLink structure in Gold Hill. Some of us have met people in houses near to ours that we didn’t even know existed before. One of the volunteers for AirLink, a self-professed “hermit” has dedicated hundreds of volunteer hours and even comes to parties now. We are becoming a strong interlaced group of communities, and that is how lives are saved when neighbors care about neighbors.

Results
Economic?: 

Through our stronger community ties, whole neighborhoods are taking advantage of education and practical opportunities to help each other with fire mitigation. One award winning US Forest Service program is called “Saws and Slaws”. This is an organized program where the Forest Services provides training; neighbors then do the fire mitigation for the host’s property, and this is followed by a shared pot luck meal. 

 

It is yet to be proven, but all involved are convinced that properties where fire mitigation is done properly will be spared in the next fire. The fire in 2010 caused over $200 million in lost and damaged property, and the County and Forest Service believe every one of the burned houses could have been saved through proper mitigation.

Environmental?: 

Many places in the mountains do not have cell phone coverage, so, in the past, there likely were long delays in reporting fires. Now with the radio coverage and with more and more people carrying hand held radios, we anticipate a much quicker reporting time which could make the difference between a smaller fire quickly extinguished versus losing hundreds or thousands of acres of forest and habitat.

 

Social?: 

To protect ourselves, our property and the environment we love, we must work together. The inter-mountain alliances formed in the past few years along with the ever growing number of amateur radio operators who now know people they might never have met otherwise have created a strong, resilient extended community. When disaster happens, neighbors care for neighbors, and even more so when we really know each other. This has been a direct result of the IMA and the efforts to spread best practices throughout our communities. 

 

What were the negative or unintended impacts (if any) associated with implementing this solution? : 

No negative or unintended impacts noted to date.

 

Replication/Scale
Return on Investment: How much did it cost to implement these activities? How do your results above compare to this investment?: 

The monetary cost has been comparatively small, the results invaluable. The NeighborLink structure took time and the efforts of three people in the Gold Hill area.  AirLink has cost less than $10,000, and another nearby but larger town will spend an equal amount on their communications infrastructure. The main need for money going forward is to improve the reach of our radios into the canyons and to provide radios to mountain residents who want to participate but can’t afford to purchase the equipment.

What are the main factors needed to successfully replicate this solution elsewhere?: 

Active amateur radio enthusiasts, community. The NeighborLink-like structures are as important to this effort as amateur radio. One thing we have learned is that no one can come in from the outside and tell a community how to implement a program like this. This has spread by grass roots - local people telling their story about why this is good and how they went about it, providing encouragement for the next community to find their own way and offering help when asked. 

 

We do have expertise in communications that can be shared and guidance on how to get started. What we have done can easily be duplicated in a way appropriate to each individual community.

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Contest Name: 
Reducing Our Risk

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