January 29, 2020

Twelve Lessons About Social Media and Natural Disasters

One of Jeff Warner's many amazing photographs of Golden during the Indian Gulch Fire.

During the Indian Gulch Fire in Golden in 2011, Councilor Bill Fisher and I found that we were able to use our email lists, websites, and social media networks in ways that were pretty helpful to community members across Golden. After the fire, we put together a report describing what we had done, how well it worked, and the lessons we drew from the experience. In the months after the fire, we shared informal versions of the report with City Council, city staff, and the community, but Bill and I thought it would be worth sharing a slightly cleaner and slightly more polished version. It took a while, but we’ve got a slightly more formal version of the report we can share with anyone interested in learning from our experience.

Although the Indian Gulch Fire occurred a couple of years back, long and challenging fire seasons are probably here to stay (as Coloradans experienced yet again this summer), and the devastating floods of the past couple of weeks ago are a reminder that Colorado communities are susceptible to other crises, as well.

In reviewing and cleaning up the draft, we found that the observations and conclusions are still accurate and relevant. Because we had built strong email, web, and social media networks, because we weren’t part of the formal chain of command, and because we had earned trust and credibility from the community, we were able to fill a communication role that community members desperately wanted but which city and county officials couldn’t provide.

The short version of our lessons learned:

  1. Community members were hungry for information, and the official communication channels (while important) couldn’t move quickly enough to provide what the community wanted.
  2. Providing frequent updates, even if there wasn’t much new information to report, was extremely important to community members.
  3. Bill and I were effective in our ad-hoc communication/engagement/liaison role in part because we spent a lot of time on the ground talking with first responders, community members, and others.
  4. Doing a good job of gathering and sharing information was time-consuming.
  5. There can be some trade-offs between speed and accuracy, but local governments can’t rely exclusively on their traditional systems for aggregating and vetting information; people in the community are generating and sharing huge amounts of information and they aren’t waiting to see what the official channels are reporting.
  6. Because the emergency response was so strong – high quality teams that were well managed and coordinated – Bill and I didn’t have to expend any energy dealing with those types of operational issues. We were able to focus almost exclusively on communication and outreach with the community.
  7. Although community members collectively relied on a wide range of information sources, individuals tended to rely on only one or two. In other words, if we wanted to reach most community members, we had to rely on a range of communication tools.
  8. Facebook and Twitter were the most valuable tools for quick, frequent updates.
  9. Email newsletters played a central role as a less frequent but more thorough bedrock communication tool.
  10. Facebook and Twitter users can dramatically amplify the information they gather. If we provided frequent, high-quality information on these channels, that’s what spread quickly through these social networks. If we didn’t, then the quality of the information spreading through the networks was less reliable.
  11. It was important that we responded quickly to the questions and queries we received via email, our websites, and social media.
  12. Although it was unplanned, Bill and I were a good team for this role. We both had a lot of credibility in the community; by virtue of being on the city council and mayor, respectively, we were highly connected to the flow of information about the fire; we had both already built up strong email, web, and social media networks; and we were both highly sensitive to the risk of distributing inaccurate information. In addition, we had worked closely together for a long time, and trusted each other, so it was easy to share responsibilities throughout the entire crisis.

Feel free to download the full “Indian Gulch Fire – Lessons Learned” report if you’re interested. We welcome your thoughts on any of this, especially about where we go from here: how can the City of Golden (and other local governments around the country) – during natural disasters and perhaps at other times as well – be responsive to the growing use of social media and other internet-based tools for monitoring what’s happening in Golden and for engaging with the City and with each other as community challenges present themselves.

Jacob & Bill

P.S. Thanks to Golden photographer Jeff Warner for letting us use the photo.

Protecting Golden’s “Red Zone”

Firefighters staging in the Mountain Ridge neighborhood during the Indian Gulch Fire.

We often don’t think of Golden as being very vulnerable to wildfire. It’s a largely urbanized area on the outskirts of Denver protected by a top-notch fire department. But last year’s Indian Gulch Fire reminded everyone that because we have so many boundaries adjacent to open space, many of our homes – in particular those that abut or are otherwise really near our open space – really are in the “red zone.”

One critical risk factor for homes in the red zone (sometimes called the Wildland Urban Interface) is the amount of fuel in the area immediately surrounding the structure (the “defensible space“). If you’ve got a lot of brush and trees in your yard right next to your house, that can make it really easy for an approaching wildfire to ignite your home. Last year during the Indian Gulch Fire, for instance, some Mountain Ridge folks discovered that a ditch behind their home was filled with woody debris, exactly the sort of fuel that can help a fire jump across the lawns and destroy homes.

The risk is even more complicated now because of the way the fire season is no longer limited to the hot, summer months. We’ve seen significant wildfires here on the Front Range in recent years during just about every time of year, and the Indian Gulch Fire took place in March last year, which isn’t really part of the traditional wildfire season.

After the Indian Gulch Fire, the city stepped up its education efforts around Golden to help residents understand the risks and take appropriate steps to protect their homes and neighborhoods. I don’t know how successful those efforts were, however, nor how much of an effort the city is planning this spring, so I sent a note to the mayor and my City Councilors asking them two questions:

  1. How much progress did we make last year encouraging homeowners to clear our their defensible spaces?
  2. Is the city planning to ramp up its efforts again this year to educate and help homeowners who want to reduce the wildfire risk to their homes.

This would be good information for the city to include on the website (I searched but didn’t find anything, although they do have some more general tips about fire safety), and it’s a great opportunity for the fire department to reach out directly to the most vulnerable residents and HOAs to help them assess risk and take steps to protect their homes. I know many Council members have been out of town, so it may take them a little while to respond, but I’m looking forward to the answers and I’ll share them here when I get them.

Hot Cakes and Buffalo Bill

The last few weeks have been so busy and full of great summer events that Buffalo Bill Days seems like ages ago, but of course it’s only been a few weeks. It was a great weekend in Golden, as was the Fine Arts Fest and the block parties and the Chamber bbq and the other community happenings since then. I don’t have numbers yet on any of the other events but I did learn this morning that nearly 2,000 people enjoyed participated in the Fire Department’s Buffalo Bill Days pancake breakfast, which puts it on par with last year (although they kept the lines a lot shorter by creating doubling the number of serving lines, which was great). Hats off to the GFD!

Councilor Marjorie Sloan worked the line all morning.

Golden's State Representative Max Tyler helped out as well.

The magicians behind the breakfast: Golden firefighters made it all happen.

The 14th Annual Golden Police National Night Out: Tuesday, August 2!

Anyone who’s participated in Golden’s National Night Out knows what a great time it is. The Golden Police Department hosts the event at Parfet Park (10th and Washington) from 5-8 this Tuesday (August 2), and the kid-oriented event is a terrific opportunity for kids to learn about internet safety, fire safety, crime scene investigations, the police K-9 unit, the Jefferson County Regional SWAT Team, and more. The AirLife helicopter usually pays a visit, which is very cool (but remember to hang on to your hat when it lands). And of course there’s entertainment and free food (including hot dogs and root beer floats).

The Burn Building

I had a chance a few weeks back to spend some time as an observer during a “burn building” day for our Fire Academy. It’s seriously impressive: super hot outside, they are all in their turnouts and other heavy, hot gear, they are hauling a hose line and other equipment, and when they enter the building it’s super smoky and super hot. It’s obviously really important training, since the conditions are a lot like a real structure fire can be. Kudos to the instructors, too – all fire fighters with GFD – for investing so much energy into preparing our new recruits to be successful firefighters.

The "burn building" (using Instagram).

Golden Fire Department: “The Maze” Training Day

Everyone who has worked the Golden Fire Department, or has seen them in action, knows how remarkable they are. What you may not know, though, is that our department runs on volunteers (about 90 of them!). The Fire Chief, the Fire Inspector, and a few other folks work as full-time professionals because of their workload and specialized skill set, but the vast majority of our firefighters fulfill their training requirements, support our community events, and respond to calls on their own time as volunteers. Every year the department solicits applicants to serve as new firefighter volunteers, accepts a small percentage in a highly competitive process (134 applied this year), and then runs the five-month Fire Academy to train our new recruits in the job. The Academy is hard work, both physically and in terms of the skills the recruits have to learn, and we’ve already had a few drop out. Sixteen now remain.

The agenda on the day I dropped in included a lot of work with their breathing apparatus, climbing the 100′ ladder with their turnouts, and what were basically intervals with bunker gear and sledgehammers. The agenda also included “the maze,” which involves navigating through crawl spaces, up and over ladders and rafters, and other obstacles designed to simulate the interior of a structure during a fire. The catch: they are in full bunker gear using their breathing apparatus, the course isn’t fixed but rather they have to follow a fire hose that twists and turns and is sometimes tangled up with other hoses. And, to make it more interesting (and more realistic), after a practice run they have to navigate the maze with a blacked out mask. The views from the top of the 100′ ladder were awesome, by the way.

Golden Fire Update: March 30, 2011

"Thank You Firefighters" The photo is a little awkward but the sentiment isn't. Golden firefighters were very excited to see this written in chalk on a street in Mountain Ridge.

The Fire
We haven’t seen any sort of official notice that the fire is completely out – it might actually take a while – but for all intents and purposes the Indian Gulch Fire is done. Jefferson County crews spent the weekend getting a few hot spots and doing some mitigation work behind Mountain Ridge (where fire crews had dug fire line). There may be some more mop up on the fire, and there will be more mitigation work required as well, but the fire itself is over.

The fire wrap-up: It burned a total of 1,570 acres. No homes were lost and there were no injuries. The city’s emergency response systems worked extremely well, and our staff is already analyzing what we did, where the few hiccups were, and how to do it even better next time (whenever it is that next time comes). Jefferson County Sheriff Ted Mink deserves a special mention: his department did a great job coordinating the response, managing the dozens of agencies that sent crews to help, and managing the handoff to the federal incident team when they arrived.

As you all know, our firefighters did a fantastic job all the way through the fire and even afterward (we sent a crew down to Douglas County to help them with their own fire). I also want to call out the many other City of Golden staff that stepped up. Our water department focused on keeping the water pressure up, Parks & Recreation de-winterized the Splash in a matter of hours so that we could provide firefighters with hot showers and a place to stage, our police department worked hard to make sure our firefighters had the room and access they needed, the communications team was in overdrive, and so on. And the work continues even now, such as the work our streets crew is doing to protect our water supply.

Plenty of folks posted information, photos, and stories during the fire, but I want to call out two in particular:

Councilor Bill Fisher did something cool as well, pulling together news articles and other links. I’d love to know about any other web sites or blogs where folks posted their images, recollections, and other info. That was a week to remember, for sure.

I learned a lot this past week, not the least of which was the power of Facebook and Twitter during a crisis for both sharing information and listening, and Council Fisher and I will gather our thoughts and share what we learned in the next few weeks. In the meantime, I also learned that the fire retardant slurry dropped by the air tankers also contains some fertilizer and seed to help with revegetation after the fire.

Finally, among the most amusing and heartwarming moments for me was hearing so many Mountain Ridge residents express their deepest gratitude to the firefighters and insist on throwing a party to thank them, while simultaneously hearing our firefighters express their deepest gratitude to the Mountain Ridge residents, and insist on throwing a party to thank them! Chief Bales mentioned the other day that you usually have to worry about your firefighters losing too much weight during a fire, and he joked that his firefighters were so well fed and cared for by the Mountain Ridge neighborhood that he was worried last week about the opposite. In any case, this seems like a win-win opportunity for everyone to throw a party, thank each other for stepping up as only Golden neighbors can do, and express our collective gratitude that we didn’t lose any homes or suffer any injuries. I’m under the impression that the Mountain Ridge folks actually want to plan something in the coming weeks, and the City, City Council, and I are all happy to help and support. Whoever has already started to plan this please let me know and we can make sure everyone is on the same page.

I can’t say enough about this community, and every hour of the fire I was reminded how blessed I am to get to live here. Neighbors looked out for each other, people came to help Golden and Jefferson County from all over the state, community organizations banded together to provide even more aid and support, and despite the number of moving parts and the potential for chaos we somehow all made it work. Even our use of email, Twitter, and Facebook – among the things that Councilor Fisher and I focused on – wouldn’t have worked so well if so many other folks didn’t repost, retweet, and forward. Even the communication efforts ended up being an incredible community collaboration.

My heartfelt thanks to everyone.

Golden Fire Update: March 24, 2011

Firefighters putting away the hose line they had established as a contingency defense for the Mountain Ridge neighborhood.

Today’s short version: 1,500 acres [Ed. Note: last night’s media advisory mistakenly indicated 1,700], 77% contained, no injuries, no homes lost, life returning to normal in Golden.

Status of the Fire
The big news of the evening: 77% containment on the fire, a very high level of confidence that we’ve got this thing licked, and the evacuation alert for Mountain Ridge is over. There is still some more containment to achieve, some hot spots to hit, and a lot of mop up, but today we clearly transitioned into a wrapping-up mode. What a relief. You may still see some activity but it’ll be much less than we’ve had the past several days. In fact, a lot of the crews that came in to help are on their way home or on to the next major wildlife (including a growing fire near Castle Rock), and the federal Type 1 Incident Management Team that has been running this operation for a couple of days will start transitioning out and leave town by the end of the week.

Community Fire Information Meeting
You can watch tonight’s Community Fire Information Meeting online on the city’s web site. The presentations lasted about 25 minutes and then we had another 25 minutes or so of Q & A.

Road Closures
We expect Golden Gate Canyon Road to open at midnight tonight and remain open. Clear Creek Canyon will remain closed however, until fire officials and CDOT can either eliminate the danger or rock slides or figure out how best to manage the issue. Stay tuned.

Fire Ban
Fire bans remain in effect in Golden and unincorporated Jefferson County. Please don’t use any open flames outside and please be careful with cigarettes.

Fire Investigation
Now that the threat posed by the fire is largely gone, officials are ramping up the investigation into the cause. They’ve identified the point of origin (Indian Gulch north of U.S. 6 in Clear Creek Canyon) and there is a very strong belief that the fire was human-caused. If you have any information that might help investigators figure out what happened, please call the tip line: 303-271-5612.

Indian Gulch Fire Statistics
Date Started: March 20, 2011, 10:15 am
Acreage: 1,700
Structures Threatened: 287
Air Resources: 1 Type 1 Helicopter, 1 Type 2 Helicopter, 1 Type 3 Helicopter, 2 Single Engine Air Tankers, 1 Fixed Wing Heavy Tanker.
Closures: Golden Gate Canyon Drive (to be lifted later tonight), US Highway 6
Containment: 77%

Wildfire Mitigation
The City of Golden adopted a Wildfire Mitigation Plan in 2007, but a lot of the potential actions described in that plan depend on property owners to proactively clear out a defensible space and take other steps to protect their homes. Over the next few months, we’ll start to look at that plan again, identify any appropriate refinements or updates, and step up education efforts about the things individual homeowners can do. We’ll be happy to work with HOAs or neighborhoods who want to get something going. Our new neighborhood matching grant program may be useful to neighborhoods that want to undertake mitigation or protection efforts.

Golden Fire Update: March 23, 2011

A sign on a lawn in the Mountain Ridge neighborhood.

In short, the situation is improving.

The longer version:

Status of the Fire
The fire spread a little today – up to about 1,500 acres – but firefighters seem increasingly confident about controlling it. It remains about 25% contained, but the main threat now is to the north. Because the weather cooperated and because of the resources available, they were able to attack it hard today, including the use of two helicopeters, three fixed-wing aircraft, and nearly 300 firefighters from close to 40 agencies. Unfortunately, the evacuation alert remains in effect for homes that are north of Highway 58 and west of Highway 93, including Mountain Ridge. My sense is that the firefighters don’t think there is a major risk of the fire now doubling back all the way to the Mountain Ridge neighborhood, but they may not end the evacuation alert until the threat is much lower or gone entirely. A new Indian Gulch fire map went up today showing the approximate extent of the fire. As with the previous one, please treat it as a general indication of the fire (it may not be very precise, and it may even be inaccurate in places).

Community Fire Information Meeting
We’ve scheduled a short community briefing tomorrow (Thursday) evening at Golden City Hall starting at 7pm. You can also watch on Comcast Ch. 8 and online. The briefing will be geared toward Mountain Ridge folks, but of course everyone is welcome. Officials from the federal Incident Management Team and from the city will provide short briefings on various aspects of the fire and the firefighting effort, and then we’ll all be available to take questions.

Road Closures
Earlier this afternoon, U.S. 6 closed through Clear Creek Canyon because of the risk of rock slides (especially from the water drops). No word on how long the closure will last. Golden Gate Canyon has been generally closed except to residents, although it’s been somewhat variable depending on the fire and fire crew operations.

Water Quality in Clear Creek
In addition to our emergency services crews, many other members of the city staff have been helping manage the fire situation and plan for post-fire issues. For example, there is some risk of increased erosion and organic load in Clear Creek upstream from our water intake, and our water folks have been preparing for whatever contingencies may emerge. We’ll report on this tomorrow night, and as we shift from the emergency to the post-emergency we’ll be able to report more on the threats and how we are tackling them.

Tonight’s update is shorter than my updates of the last couple of days, and this is a good sign: the threat to Golden posed by the fire is decreasing and there is less to report. It’s not clear that we are out of the woods yet, but the situation is clearly improving. As always, reach out anytime you have questions.

Community Fire Information Meeting: Tomorrow at 7pm

Community Fire Information Meeting: Golden City Hall, 7pm, Thursday March 24

The view from Highway 58 to the west looking into Golden at about 1:30pm today.

We just scheduled a short community briefing for tomorrow evening at 7pm at City Hall. It will be geared primarily toward Mountain Ridge folks but of course everyone is invited. Representatives from the National Incident Management Team and officials with the City of Golden will update everyone on the status of the fire, firefighting efforts, and evacuation plans. No doubt the fire marshal will be there, and it could be crowded . . . two other options are to watch on Comcast channel 8 (if you live in Golden) and to watch online.

Councilor Fisher posted some more info on his blog as well.

If you have any questions, you are always welcome to reach out by email, tweets or Twitter direct message, Facebook, phone, pigeon, or Pony Express. I’m having the easiest time keeping up with my email but I will get back to you however you reach out.