© 2023 Aspen Public Radio
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

Halle Zander on the state of Spanish-language emergency alerts for wildfires in Roaring Fork Valley

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.

Earlier this year, Aspen Public Radio’s All Things Considered host and reporter Halle Zander dug deep into emergency alerts in the three counties that make up the Roaring Fork Valley.

That three-part series, Uneven Landscapes, looked at how different response agencies in Pitkin, Eagle, and Garfield counties got messages about emergencies like wildfires out to Spanish speakers.

Reporter Caroline Llanes sat down with Zander this week to discuss her reporting and what counties need to do to prepare for the next emergency.

Caroline Llanes: Why don't we start big picture: I'm really curious, what made you want to look into different communities in different counties here in the Valley and how emergency alerts were distributed in English and Spanish?

Halle Zander: Yeah, so it all really started with Pitkin County. I covered the prescribed burn up in Hunter Creek back in May. Then I met Iris Salamanca, who works for the BLM. She is the Northwest District's volunteer and visitor services coordinator, but she's also bilingual, and the U.S. Forest Service reached out to her to help translate some of the social media updates and some of their other releases about the event.

I remember speaking with Iris and it was one of the first times she had ever done this. It's not really part of her normal job description to be used as a translator or an interpreter. But she filled in because it was important to her. And when I found out it was new to her, it made me want to dive a little deeper.

CL: Yeah. So you started the series with Pitkin and their emergency alert system, kind of like you mentioned just now. And I guess I'm curious, where do you see the most potential for growth in the county's ability to communicate with its Spanish speaking residents?

HZ: Yeah that’s a great question. I mean, Pitkin County has this thing, which I didn't talk about in the series called the IPAWS System, which stands for Integrated Public Alert and Warning System. And essentially it allows the dispatch center employees to draw a map around a certain area in Pitkin County and send an alert to any cellular device in that area. So you don't have to sign up, it's not a subscription like Pitkin Alert is. But not every county has access to that. So Pitkin County is unique in that way. I think making sure that when they use that system, those alerts are in Spanish will also be an important, important way to reach people.

CL: Yeah, definitely. And specifically in your story, I think it was Brett Loeb (Pitkin County communications manager), he said that the county had a goal of having every alert from Pitkin Alerts be an emergency alert or just sort of a community message, be translated into Spanish by the time ski season started. What is the progress on that goal, especially now that lifts are running?

HZ: Yeah. So I asked Brett back in mid-November, when the date for the ski areas to open was moved up. I asked what their progress was and he said to expect it within the next few weeks. He said that a few new systems had come to their attention—programs, software that they might be able to use. So I think they were making some last minute changes possibly to their rollout plan. So I'm expecting it any day now and continuing to check in with them as time passes.

CL: That's amazing. I'm so glad that you're on that. And then the second part of your story was Garfield County. And something that really stood out to me with your reporting on Garfield was that there was a sort of a community response and a community desire to have language accessibility in emergency alerts. Do you think that county officials, people working in different agencies in Garfield County, do you think they heard those community voices?

HZ: I think it really depends on who you're talking about. For example, Crystal Mariscal is a town council member in New Castle and part of the Garfield County Latino Community Committee. And she's really active in Spanish language advocacy efforts, among other things. And that committee reports to commissioners and has made recommendations to the county's dispatch center this year. So she's definitely somebody who has heard those voices.

But when it comes to emergency alerts specifically, it seems officials in the sheriff's department have heard those voices and are taking them into consideration. An official at dispatch, Tom Holman, said he wants to do more but just doesn't have the resources. And the sheriff's department said they felt like they were doing enough at this point. So while they are aware of the desire for people in Garfield County to have Spanish language emergency alerts, I don't think anything is going to change anytime soon.

CL: Yeah, that's interesting that you brought up the lack of resources, because I think that something that also stood out to me was the variety in the way that local agencies in different fire departments approach translation. You had people doing different things and making the most of the resources that they did have. So I guess I'm wondering what lessons do you think that other counties and people in different parts of the county can learn from that kind of variety?

HZ: Yeah, I mean, when you look at it at the county level and you know, between the three counties, there are three sheriff's departments. But between the three counties, there's close to a dozen different fire districts and departments. They're smaller, they have smaller budgets. So there is a lot more variety in what they're able to offer. In Carbondale, the Carbondale and Rural Fire Protection District, they are doing a great job in that they set aside $10,000 a year to update all of their social media updates. And if you look on their Facebook page, it's pretty consistent. I mean, even small bits of information, public service announcements, community events, they'll translate those as opposed to other fire departments who are doing no Spanish translation whatsoever.

So I think a lesson to be learned there is that to get every fire department to translate their alerts is going to be a much bigger lift than doing that at the county level with the sheriff's departments in the dispatch centers just by looking at the numbers.

CL: So then moving on to the third part of your series, which was Eagle County. And in Eagle County, it seems like there are some really big strides being made towards translation across the board with emergency alerts. Would you say that's right?

HZ: In their emergency management department, I would say yes. Everyone there is bilingual. The deputy is a native Spanish speaker who used to work in dispatch and brought this issue to the attention of the department years ago. That's Fernando Almanza. But at Vail's Dispatch Center, which serves all of Eagle County, they're struggling to meet staffing needs right now. So their biggest priority is to hire more people. I was told that expanding Spanish alerts would have to come second to that. So if Pitkin County’s dispatch center starts translating all of its alerts sometime soon, as promised, they might be, you know, “in the lead” per se, when it comes to Spanish language offerings. But yeah, we'll just have to wait and see.

CL: Yeah, that's really interesting. It seems like some of Eagle's biggest successes have come from making an effort to hire these bilingual folks in key positions in dispatch. Do you think that's a strategy that other counties and other organizations and in other fields, not just emergency alerts, can benefit from?

HZ: Absolutely. I think that doesn't just apply to emergency services. I think Spanish language skills are a huge asset and should be recognized as a big resumé line item for most jobs in the valley and across the country. It's invaluable to have those skills on staff for news organizations like APR as well, like we could stand to have more Spanish language skills here.

CL: So it seems like across the board for all three counties, for our valley, there's progress being made, but there's still a lot of work to be done. Do you think our three counties will be ready to get critical information out in Spanish before the next big emergency?

HZ: I want to say yes. I want to say that a lot of these efforts are good enough and that everyone's going to have the information that they need and that no one's going to be confused and no one's going to be scared because they can't find access to a reliable translation. But I don't know.

I think that it varies so widely that there are people working to improve it, but there are still a lot of community members trying to fill in the gaps. And that's, first of all, not fair because it's unpaid labor. Second of all, it's unreliable if it's not a certified translator, or someone who's familiar with fire lingo. To get county officials ready to deliver an equal level of Spanish language services, it's going to take a lot of funding. It's going to take time.

CL: That was Halle Zander. She's a reporter and our All Things Considered host here at Aspen Public Radio talking about her three part series on emergency alerts here in the Roaring Fork Valley and the three counties that make it up. Halle, you were amazing. Thank you so much for taking the time to do this.

HZ: Thanks, Caroline.

Caroline Llanes is a general assignment reporter at Aspen Public Radio, covering local news and City of Aspen-based issues. Previously, she was an associate producer for WBUR’s Morning Edition in Boston.