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Boulder rolls out evacuation zones for faster information

The city will use a program called Zone Haven, which allows the public to access a map of closures. They're hoping it will help provide critical information faster.

BOULDER, Colo. — Emergency officials in the city of Boulder are rolling out an additional alerting tool for disasters, hoping to provide critical information faster.

The city will use a program called Zone Haven, which allows the public to access a map of closures. The program allows emergency officials to issue evacuation orders much faster and allows citizens to access that information at the same time.

“Previously we would literally get out the map, set it on the back of the truck, draw a box… agree…police and fire would agree that’s where we need to evacuate…call into dispatch and relay that information on the radio,” Boulder Fire Wildland Division Chief Brian Oliver said.

Oliver said the new program converts what was a 30-minute process into a process that could take as little as one minute.

“As soon as we decide that’s where we want to send people or it’s a message we want to push, it’s out there,” he said.

The faster information could help people who get evacuation orders avoid a common issue known as milling. Milling happens when someone receives a message but delays reacting to it to gather more information.

“Milling is a word we use to describe collective behavior,” said Dr. Jeannette Sutton, a University of Albany professor who researches social science around alerting. Sutton got her doctorate at University of Colorado Boulder.

“Collective behavior is when human beings turn to one another to confirm information. To seek information that they don’t understand to or get greater clarity on things they’ve been told. It’s a social reaction that we have with other people to determine whether we are at risk and if we should take actions to protect ourselves,” she said.

Sutton said people often wait for environmental or social cues as confirmation of an evacuation order. They may look out the window to see if they can spot smoke or wait to see a neighbor packing up and leaving.

“It delays the time to taking the protective action that might be necessary for people to save their lives and that’s where it becomes very dangerous," she explained. "Where people are looking for information and they can’t find it in a fast manor.”

Boulder officials, like Oliver, believe the extra information provided by this new zone system will help mitigate milling.

“The same way a carpenter or contractor has 5 different screwdrivers there’s some that work better in specific situations… the more tools we have in our toolbox the better we are at getting the information out,” he said.

Sutton added that Boulder officials have to be mindful about educating the public about the new system.

“For any sort of public alerting tool to work where things are narrowed down into number and letters and stuff that you have to understand ahead of time, a significant public education campaign has to exist,” she said.

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