Colorado Wildfire Deaths Blamed on 911 Malfunction

PHOTO: In this aerial photograph, smoke rises from the Lower North Fork Wildfire as it burns near the foothills community of Conifer, Colo., southwest of Denver, March 27, 2012.
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Three people in Colorado are dead after an emergency 911 system malfunctioned and failed to alert them to evacuate their homes ahead of a raging wildfire.

The three victims had all contacted the Jefferson County 911 system to ask about the fire, but were not told by dispatchers to evacuate, and did not receive the automated notification in time to save their lives, according to Jacki Kelley, spokeswoman for the Jefferson County Sheriff's Department.

Sam Lucas, 77, and his wife, Linda, 76, called 911 after seeing smoke near their home on March 26, but were told the fire was a controlled burn, started by the Colorado Forest Service. Shortly after the call, the fire spilled over the prescribed boundaries of the burn and quickly spread to the couple's home.

The automated reverse-911 alert service, which is set up to notify residents of emergencies, placed a call to the Lucases home, but it was too late. The couple died as their house was engulfed in flames.

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A third fire victim, Ann Appel, also called 911 to report smoke in the air around 2:30 p.m. on March 26. Dispatchers told Appel that the fire was covering five acres and growing, and that fire crews were on the way, but did not tell her to evacuate, Kelley said. A reverse-911 notification went out at 5:05 p.m. to neighbors in Appel's vicinity, but the Appel home was not notified, family members told ABC affiliate KMGH.

The Appel family said that video from the scene of the fires showed Appel's home in flames by 5 p.m., making the reverse 911 call too late to help, even if it had reached her home.

According to the Sheriff's Department, the reverse 911 system malfunctioned, notifying only 88 percent of residents that should have been evacuated. The system is operated by a company called First Call, which the department said is reevaluating its contract with.

Kelley said that the 911 dispatchers accurately relayed the information they had to callers, changing the information throughout the day as the fire spread, but that the evacuation alert system failed to reach residents in time.

"We want the same answers our public does, why didn't our system work when we needed it to," said Kelley. She said there have been multiple meetings between the sheriff's department and First Call, the company that operates the alert system.

"Never wait for law enforcement or the fire department to tell you to get out if you don't feel safe. You don't have to wait for us to tell you to leave, you're allowed to leave," she added.

Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper responded to the deaths by organizing a four-member, independent investigative team to look into the fire. The head of the team, William Bass, is a forest supervisor from Wyoming. The independent review is expected to take 30 days, according to KMGH.

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