Before I met with the Austin Fire Department this past February, I didn’t realize that city governments spend time and resources to teach citizens how to prepare for natural disasters and protect their homes. I also didn’t know that in late Summer 2011, more than 1,300 homes burned down in Austin’s neighbor, Bastrop county.
Given similar conditions this year, it wasn’t surprising that Fire Chief Rhoda Mae Kerr told us that the Austin Fire Department’s Wildland Urban Interface (WUI) specialist is inundated with requests from people living in WUI areas seeking information, assessment, and help to get more prepared for wildfires.
We, Code for America Team Austin, thought that this seemed like a great opportunity for technology to help bridge the gap between Austin residents and Austin city government. And as Austin’s rapidly growing population — more than 20 percent in the last decade — seeks new frontiers along the city’s many greenbelts, the need for information for WUI inhabitants is constantly increasing.
In a time where citizens are stepping up to lighten the load and lend a hand to their resource-strained cities — taking on tasks normally relegated to our public servants –using apps like Adopt-a-Hyrdrant/Siren, shouldn’t residents also step up to prepare their own homes and neighborhoods for wildfires or other natural disasters?
For starters, preparing your home is more complex than it seems. There is a mix of misinformation and fear that lead to things like cutting down all the trees in your yard. “We don’t want people to cut down all the trees, we like trees,” said WUI specialist Josh Portie, who went on to tell us about migrating birds, and how harmful it can be to cut down too many trees. He emphasized starting with small things around the home, and working from the chimney out.
The difficult and immediate decisions that firefighters have to make in an emergency often lead them to saving homes that seem prepared, and not wasting valuable time on those that aren’t.
What puts a home at risk? The weather is a significant factor, and on certain days, with “Red Flag” warnings the risk is especially high.
While I was in Austin, I took a quick poll of residents, asking basic questions about fire safety. The poll made me realize how many people don’t even know what a Red Flag warning is.
With this new-found knowledge our team decided that fire safety information needed to reach citizens in a more accessible fashion: one without pictures of distressed people in front of blazing fires, or multi-page checklists via PDF starting out with retro-fitting your house. In short, we needed to create a good interaction, where the city government enables and facilitates better life choices by giving residents the information they need in an easy-to-understand manner so they can be better prepared for emergencies.
Over the past four months, we built a tool that will help Austin residents assess their risk of wildfires and prepare for the next blaze. It’s called Prepared.ly, and here’s how it works:
- It pulls in data feeds for weather conditions like humidity and wind speed and direction, to get the current wildfire risk for your address. It also includes information for whether or not there is a burn ban in effect for your address, as well as “Red Flag” warning notifications.
- There is a comprehensive list of tasks that are specific to WUI neighborhoods rated by their difficulty from “easy” to “super-star.” Users have the ability to skip a task, accept it, or “do it later” – which will schedule a reminder via text or email. Both users and the fire department can submit tasks, or comment on them with resources and/or experiences.
- It also provides homeowners with an easy way to get in touch with the Austin Fire Department and ask questions or seek assessment for their home or neighborhood.
The exciting thing for us at Code for America, is that this model of government facilitating a more prepared and informed citizenship could be used to prepare for any emergency situation. We encourage you to consider helping your community stay prepared for hurricanes, earthquakes, floods, tornadoes — or anything really — with Prepared.ly. The code is available to download and modify on GitHub.
In the age of the internet, and forward-thinking city governments, there is no reason everyone can’t play a proactive role in making sure their families and homes are prepared!