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All Things Considered host and reporter Halle Zander looked into Spanish-language emergency alerts in the Roaring Fork Valley’s three counties—Pitkin, Garfield, and Eagle—and compared the level of communication services that different agencies offer during disasters.

Pitkin County set to improve Spanish-language alerts

Brush in the Hunter Creek valley smolders on May 13, 2022. Two trucks and a water tank are parked near the Upper Hunter Creek Trailhead.JPEG
White River National Forest
Courtesy Photo
A prescribed burn near the Upper Hunter Creek Trailhead eliminates fuels on May 13. Fire officials set prescribed burns intentionally when weather conditions allow the fire’s spread to remain manageable.

Pueden encontrar la versión en español aquí.

The Roaring Fork Valley is familiar with wildfires.

And when disaster ignites, it can threaten both life and property.

Accurate and up-to-date information about the fire’s spread, evacuations, and road closures temper that risk.

But depending where you are in the valley, if Spanish is your first or preferred language, you might not be getting coherent emergency updates.

A helicopter takes off to assist firefighters during the prescribed burn near the Upper Hunter Creek Trailhead on May 13.
Halle Zander
Aspen Public Radio
A helicopter takes off to assist firefighters during the prescribed burn near the Upper Hunter Creek Trailhead on May 13.

Communication during a prescribed burn

On May 13, the Aspen Fire Protection District, the White River National Forest and other local agencies conducted a prescribed burn near the Hunter Creek valley above Aspen.

Prescribed fires are set intentionally when weather conditions allow firefighters to control the blaze and reduce fuels in part so that future wildfires are more manageable.

Officials from multiple agencies working on the fire knew the plume from this fire could result in questions and concerns from the public.

David Boyd is a public information officer for the White River National Forest and wanted to make sure the public knew that the smoke was nothing to be concerned about.

The Forest Service and the Aspen Fire Protection District sent out a news release, and a Pitkin Alert was sent by the Pitkin County Regional Emergency Dispatch Center.

Headshots of Valerie MacDonald, Brett Loeb, and David Boyd
Pitkin County, White River National Forest
Courtesy Photos
Pitkin County’s Valerie MacDonald, left, and Brett Loeb, center, work together to operate the Pitkin Alert system. The two decided to send a Pitkin Alert to warn residents of the prescribed burn northeast of Aspen on May 13. David Boyd, right, public information officer for the White River National Forest, also helped to spread the word with a news release and social media updates.

When Pitkin County’s dispatch center has an emergency or community alert, they can send a text or email to those who have signed up online.

Pitkin County Emergency Manager Valerie MacDonald says about half of the people in Pitkin County receive Pitkin Alerts, but she wants to get enrollment closer to 100%.

“Early warning is the gold standard,” MacDonald said. “We cannot always stop the disaster that's coming our way. But I know if we can warn people, the end result will be better.”

MacDonald doesn’t want there to be any barriers to receiving the county’s communication.

“So it's imperative that we effectively communicate with everyone in the community that we serve,” she said.

A Pitkin Alert was sent out about the prescribed burn on May 13 to warn people about the smoke, but it was only written in English.

According to data from the U.S. Census Bureau, 11% of the people living in Pitkin County are Latino, which doesn’t include those working in the county.

And 14% of the Pitkin County population reported speaking a language other than English at home.

But if you prefer Spanish and aren't able to translate Pitkin Alerts, the large plume could cause confusion, fear or even panic.

Iris Salamanca stands in front of a sign announcing the prescribed burn in the Hunter Creek valley in downtown Aspen
Aspen Fire Protection District
Courtesy Photo
Iris Salamanca readies for a prescribed burn northeast of Aspen on May 13. Salamanca supported the Aspen Fire Protection District during the fire by translating social media updates.

Iris Salamanca is the volunteer and visitor services coordinator for the Bureau of Land Management’s Northwest District Office in Colorado.

She was invited to join the prescribed burn as a translator for Aspen Fire’s social media pages.

“Coming from that background, my parents having a hard time understanding English, I'm more than happy to give that time,” Salamanca said. “I think of my family and how I would like them to have those updates.

Spanish speakers could find Spanish-language information on Aspen Fire’s website or its Facebook or Instagram pages if they thought to look there.

And according to Boyd, the Forest Service sent out a Spanish-language press release to Spanish-speaking contacts.

Still, the dominant flow of media information about the prescribed burn was in English.

On May 13, The Aspen Times, Aspen Daily News and Aspen Public Radio disseminated the information in English after an English version of a joint press release was sent out by the Forest Service, Aspen Fire, and the Upper Colorado River Interagency Fire Management Unit.

But again, the Pitkin Alert sent out about the prescribed burn on May 13 was only written in English.

Brett Loeb points to a map of the different fire districts in the Roaring Fork Valley.JPG
Halle Zander
Aspen Public Radio
Brett Loeb points to a map of the Roaring Fork Valley and the different fire and dispatch districts at the Pitkin County Regional Emergency Dispatch Center on July 8. Loeb wants to send all Pitkin Alerts in Spanish by the start of the winter season.

Translating Pitkin Alerts

Pitkin County’s dispatch center sends Pitkin Alerts, short messages sent in different formats after an emergency has begun to keep its subscribers informed.

The alerts are sometimes translated, but it’s hard to know when to expect a translation.

Brett Loeb, communications director for Pitkin County, runs the county’s dispatch center.

“Our alerts are kind of separated into two major categories, a community alert, which is just kind of nice-to-know information, and then there's emergency alerts, which is information that we want the public to have as quickly as possible,” Loeb said. “We're dedicated to providing Spanish on those emergency alerts.”

Loeb couldn’t say, however, exactly what kind of a disaster qualifies for translation.

“Yeah, it’s not a very well-defined criteria,” Loeb said. “Where it gets a little bit of a gray area is what defines an emergency alert and where that line is.”

In the past few months, most of the alerts that have been translated into Spanish have been flash-flood watches and warnings.

Dispatch has used Google Translate — a free, automated, online translation service — to produce these messages in Spanish.

Google Translate does a decent job, but it’s not completely reliable.

Ice and debris flow down the Roaring Fork River near Basalt.png
Roaring Fork Conservancy
Courtesy Photo
An ice jam flows down the Roaring Fork River through basalt on Feb. 1. Ice jams, which carry debris and icebergs downstream, can be dangerous to anglers and other river users.

Lost in translation

Loeb describes a time when dispatch tried to translate an alert into Spanish about an ice jam.

“Ice basically blocks up and dams the river and then releases and causes a flash flood, essentially with icebergs and large rocks and trees,” Loeb said. “It's very dangerous.

But when using Google Translate to send that message out to the community, the term didn’t translate well.

“The technical term is ice jam,” Loeb said. “But as it was translated into Spanish, the word ‘jam’ became ‘marmalade.’ So, you know, marmalade is not a threat to the community, but it came out that way, that you want to go to high ground to avoid the marmalade-type jam — a funny story, but something that we learned from.”

Certain Pitkin Alerts that contain information about an imminent threat aren’t only sent as texts and emails.

You can also receive a phone call that details a particular incident in an automated voice.

These are delivered in both English and Spanish, but this automated service isn’t designed to accept translations, so the Spanish version doesn’t sound nearly as clear, and it includes a number of English words.

When playing one of these messages about a flash-flood warning for Spanish speakers, some found that they could understand the message well enough to capture some of the main ideas, but others were completely lost.

Pitkin County’s bilingual communications specialist, Rosa Saucedo, couldn’t quite grasp the message.

“I would just know that there is a warning, but I do not know what the warning is about,” she said. “Terrible! Wow!”

Brett Loeb pulls up the Pitkin Alert website at the Pitkin County Regional Emergency Dispatch Center
Halle Zander
Aspen Public Radio
Brett Loeb goes through the steps for signing up and sending out a Pitkin Alert at the Pitkin County Regional Emergency Dispatch Center on July 8. The Everbridge software used by Pitkin County helps Loeb quickly get information to all subscribers.

Looking to the future

Dispatch is working to make improvements.

By the start of the winter season, when the chairlifts at the ski areas start turning, Loeb wants to translate every alert, whether it’s an emergency alert or community alert.

He also wants to improve on the templates they use for Spanish alerts ahead of a disaster.

So, in a time-sensitive emergency, dispatchers aren’t wasting time checking grammar.

For some, receiving alerts in their preferred language means more than just receiving timely, trustworthy emergency information.

It also represents an effort toward inclusion and recognition by local government agencies.

Translating isn’t part of Salamanca’s job description, but she offered those services in Pitkin County during the prescribed burn this past spring because it’s personal for her.

She reflected on her childhood, when she was warned about discrimination over her identity and langauge.

“I was that child at a very young age and had to be told by my dad like, ‘Hey, you might be seen differently.’” Salamanca said. “‘And especially if you speak Spanish, people might say something.’ I have had that occurrence, and I speak both languages as well.”

Salamanca adds that these experiences where people singled out and chastised her for speaking Spanish solidified her belief that language access is not just a nicety but a necessity.

“It's not easy to handle,” Salamanca said. “It's not easy to process. Even with my dad preparing me from a young age, you really feel like an outcast, then you kind of stand out like a sore thumb and you just don't want that. Sometimes you want to feel like you're accepted like everyone else. Whether other people feel like they shouldn't have that access or not, it should be there regardless.”

Efforts are underway throughout the Roaring Fork Valley to expand emergency resources in Spanish.

But while English speakers have more consistent and timely information during an emergency than other populations have, there will continue to be room for improvement.

Clarification: A previous version of this story said that the a press release from the U.S. Forest Service regarding the Hunter Creek prescribed burn "was sent in English," with the inference that it was not sent in Spanish. However, the release from the U.S. Forest Service was sent out in Spanish to Spanish-language media and community contacts, and that fact should have been included in the story.

This is the first story of a three-part series on Spanish-language emergency alerts in the three counties that make up the Roaring Fork Valley: Pitkin, Eagle and Garfield. The next story examines Garfield County’s Spanish offerings during and after the Grizzly Creek fire. 

Halle Zander is a broadcast journalist and the afternoon anchor on Aspen Public Radio during "All Things Considered." Her work has been recognized by the Public Media Journalists Association, the Colorado Broadcasters Association, and the Society of Professional Journalists.