County works on emergency preparedness

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County works on emergency preparedness

As Gila County residents watch the Telegraph and Mescal fires and pray for those evacuating in the fires’ paths, they wonder what evacuation would mean for them.

Carl Melford, emergency manager for Gila County’s Health and Emergency Service Management Department hears that question all the time.

“I received this question 12 times in the last month,” he said. “People ask for evacuation plans, actual evacuation routes and where do I go.”

Melford and his staff have the responsibility of creating the evacuation message, sending it out over the countywide Everbridge system, then finding and supplying the evacuation center.

The emergency team works with first responders and the fire command to decide when and where to pull the trigger for an evacuation.

While Melford understands residents’ concerns, he said evacuation routes are developed on a case-by-case basis.

“For us to give a written plan, it is not possible because every scenario is different,” he said.

During a fire, winds change direction, canyons funnel and amplify fire and even the wildfire itself creates its own weather.

Emergency managers must evaluate the risk, determine where the danger will hit and when. Melford calls that the “30,000 mile high” perspective.

“There’s a few things we normally do,” said Melford. “We determine what type of threat is it, where is the threat and how many people will be affected,” he said.

If only 20 people will need help, he has found they find their own place to shelter with family, friends or a hotel. If only two people show up, Melford might consider renting hotel rooms. Larger evacuations need space with access to showers and plenty of room for beds and privacy.

The Red Cross assists with blankets, toiletries, snacks and other food.

“They will have everything they need to get by,” said Melford for many who might have to leave without anything but the clothes on their back.

Melford strongly suggests community members create a to-go emergency bag with enough clothing, supplies and medication to survive for a week comfortably.

“I instinctively have (medications) as the first thing I say when preparing items to go,” he said.

Each time Tonto Creek floods and residents get stuck on one side, refilling prescriptions is “a lot of trouble,” he said. Some prescriptions have limits on refills, which makes it difficult to fill early.

But the most important service emergency management provides — information.

“A lot of time, when people are displaced from homes, they want up to date information,” said Melford.

He and his staff make sure evacuees have access to updates from fire command and media.

In fact, the dissemination of information lies at the core of Melford’s task.

For that, the emergency management department has spent years developing and working with the Everbridge emergency communications system.

So far, Melford has 27,000 Gila County residents signed up to receive a text, phone call and/or email to alert residents of evacuation orders, flash flooding, and other dangers. He hopes that number will increase but is proud he has more than half the population signed up.

County volunteer groups and all three members of the board of supervisors carry flyers with information on how to sign up for Everbridge.

“We’re also planning on radio spots and using social media to get more people to sign up,” he said.

Everbridge not only works for fires and floods, but it kept Payson residents informed about a propane truck that overturned at the intersection of Highways 260 and 87 a few years ago. For that emergency, local businesses evacuated in case the truck blew up.

Melford said he has the sheriff and every fire and police chief in the county on speed dial. He calls them his “inner circle.”

In an evacuation, the sheriff and police chiefs ultimately authorize an evacuation. Besides Everbridge, officers do door to door communications in order to make sure every resident has an awareness of the threat.

Fire chiefs keep Melford appraised of fire situations.

Melford and his staff then decide how to focus the evacuation message to those who need it.

Everbridge allows him to contact one person or the whole county.

“It triangulates off of cell towers,” said Melford.

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