Customer Story

Eagle County, Colorado: Powering real-time emergency response through cloud collaboration

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Eagle County’s Emergency Operations Center uses Google Workspace to better coordinate its emergency response teams and broadcast vital information in real time to a diverse, multilingual population during natural disasters.

Google Cloud Results

Streamlines emergency response for roughly 1.3 million citizens and tourists each year

• Saves critical time across 50+ emergency response teams with a unified platform
• Better collaboration with multinational and bilingual populations powered by helpful AI that ensures emergencies are resolved faster.
• Empowers frontline workers with tools that streamline their jobs while making a difference in the community

From snowy mountains and ski resorts to green river valleys and forests, Eagle County in Colorado is an adventurer’s paradise. Home to world-class skiing, expansive hiking trails, mountain biking and wilderness preserves—all overlooking some of the state’s most breathtaking views—Eagle County is one of Colorado’s most popular tourist areas, with well over 1 million people visiting the area each year. The climate and geography, at the heart of the Colorado Rockies, also make Eagle County susceptible to natural disasters, including avalanches and wildfires.

As any emergency responder will tell you, the speed of response, based on accurate information, is fundamental to preserving life and property when disaster strikes. But when you’re trying to reach remote communities across challenging terrain, it is even more important to coordinate the resources at your disposal.

“In the case of a wildfire, information is coming in from multiple sources on the ground, including from members of the public and the emergency response team itself,” says Brandon Williams, Innovation and Strategy Manager, Eagle County Government. “You can have roughly 50 teams and maybe 500 people responding to a fast-moving incident.”

Getting up to speed in the situation room

This presents the emergency team with two critical challenges. “Our response teams need a single source of information that can be updated in real time,” says Williams. “It is equally important that we keep communities up to speed on evacuation plans, shelters and road closures, for example.”

While technology has a role to play in the age of mobile devices and online communications, Williams focuses on making information as accessible as possible. “How do you ensure the latest news is accessible for a multilingual, geographically dispersed population with different technical skills and using a variety of devices from PCs and laptops to mobile phones?” In the past, Eagle County updated its emergency operations plans on paper in three-ring binders, and mostly relied on phone calls and other traditional communication tools that proved difficult and unreliable in real-world emergency situations.

Williams and his team originally deployed Google Workspace several years ago to create a centralized platform enabling a single, always-current source of truth in times of disaster. During the Lake Christine Fire in 2018, which destroyed over 12,000 acres on Basalt Mountain and caused $30 million in damages, the emergency response teams used Google Docs to share vital crisis information as the flames and smoke spread. Eagle County also turned to Google Maps Platform to share information with residents so that they could see at a glance the extent of the disaster, travel information, and other real-time information.

Transforming the front-line response

Given this previous experience, Williams decided to put Google Workspace front and center as part of Eagle County’s emergency response strategy. He also hired an expert to help the team maximize the potential of Google Workspace tools to help protect life and property. “We wanted to do something special in emergency management,” says Williams. “We had the right tools. Now we just needed somebody who had the right skills and could give us guidance on how to make even more of our Google Workspace tools.”

Birch Barron, who was hired as the Director of Emergency Management, saw the potential of Google Workspace including tools such as Google Chat for real-time conversations between emergency crews, Google Sites to broadcast information to residents, and Google Forms for anyone to submit information quickly and in different languages.

He also rolled out additional training to ensure that everyone from the situation room to the frontline would benefit. “The beauty of Google Workspace is that it is so intuitive and flexible,” says Barron. “Even if you’re on the frontline, you can use your mobile phone to access Google Workspace and coordinate with your colleagues.”

Barron gives the example of a firefighter who wanted to show his colleagues in the response center the reach of a fast-spreading wildfire. “During an emergency team Google Chat, one of the crew tackling the blaze pointed their camera at flames on the horizon so that we had a sense of the scale and the direction of the event,” he says.

From planning room to front-line action: Google Workspace proves its value

“Providing disparate departments and their teams with instant access to information is the foundation of an effective response that preserves lives and livelihoods. Google Docs simplifies chaos and gives clarity to these fast-moving situations.” -- Brandon Williams, Innovation and Strategy Manager, Eagle County Government

The team’s plan was put to the test two years after the Lake Christine fire. At lunchtime one day in August, Eagle County emergency services received a 911 call reporting a fire spreading fast in Grizzly Creek. Williams and the team leapt into action with Google Workspace supporting their efforts.

Their first step was to set up a Google Doc for the situation report. “Providing disparate departments and their teams with instant access to information is the foundation of an effective response that preserves lives and livelihoods,” says Williams. “Google Docs simplifies chaos and gives clarity to these fast-moving situations.”

Williams then turned to Google Maps Platform, using the My Maps feature to add layers of vital information including evacuation and pre-evacuation zones, fire locations, and disaster assistance centers where evacuated people could seek shelter. “Google Maps gives us is the ability to communicate with our multilingual population in a way that transcends language. The interface is familiar to most people, and they can use it to find information about a natural disaster in the same environment that they use for finding directions or choosing a restaurant.”

Compared with the Lake Christine fire in 2018, the Eagle County team was able to make wider use of Google tools thanks to Barron’s expertise and the extent to which Google Workspace had since evolved. “Google Workspace is constantly evolving, adding features and better integrating tools so that the sum is always greater than the parts,” says Barron.

He calls out the use of Chat groups for secure face-to-face conversations while the participants update the Docs situation report. He especially values the hand raising feature that helps everyone contribute to the conversation and prioritize information. “The quietest person may have something really valuable to say and I don't want their opinion to get lost in the mix,” says Barron. “Having the ability to raise your hand is a really effective way of making sure that you are heard.”

Using Google Workspace to make smarter assessments

When Eric Lovgren, Eagle County’s Wildfire Mitigation Coordinator, surveys a property in response to a disaster, he uses Google Workspace to better process building permits. He uses a Google Form to create a hazard rating for a certain home or business, the form populates a Google Doc and a PDF immediately, and he sends it to the owner and tracks information and statistics in a Google Sheet.

“A big part of my job is to adapt to changes in climate that bring us shocks to the system like floods and wildfires, prolonged drought and pandemics," Lovgren says. "It requires resilience and you have to learn to be flexible. Google Workspace makes the logistics of our work so much easier and more accurate so we can focus on protecting lives and the environment.”

Serving diverse communities during a disaster

“Google Workspace supports our efforts to communicate equally to everyone, especially when front-line workers such as health inspectors, nurses, and housing officers are sharing knowledge with Eagle County residents.” -- Faviola Alderete, Community Health Strategist, Eagle County Government

Some 30 percent of Eagle County’s 56,000 residents are Spanish speakers, so bilingual communication around safety measures and evacuation plans is key to protecting community public safety.

“It's really critical that public safety and government response speak in a language that people understand,” says Faviola Alderete, Community Health Strategist, Eagle County Government. “Google Workspace supports our efforts to communicate equally to everyone, especially when frontline workers such as health inspectors, nurses or housing officers are sharing knowledge with Eagle County residents.”

Fostering community connections

“You can’t put a price on technology such as Google Workspace when it helps support split-second decisions that make the difference between life and death.” -- Birch Barron, Director of Emergency Management, Eagle County Government

One of Eagle County’s initiatives is to bring more stakeholder opinions around internal processes into the loop and to amplify public voices in the decision-making process. Google Workspace makes this easy.

“Google Forms is one of the best tools because all information lands in one spot," says Jill Klosterman, Chief Financial Officer at Eagle County. "We can comb through what we capture to figure out what's important. It helps us make our financials as transparent as possible for our community.”

Competing schedules makes it difficult for all employees and public participants to join in-person meetings, so a Google Form sent through email and transferred to a Google Sheet enables suggestions and feedback to be easily gathered.

“Whether it’s a discussion on taxes or cost of living, how we’re spending our budget, or an outside agency requesting funds, internal and external members can weigh in effortlessly at their convenience,” says Klosterman. “It’s a great way to create an ongoing, timely dialogue with our community.”

The Eagle County team is excited about working with Google Workspace in the future. “Every year, Google Workspace tools get better, smarter, and more integrated,” says Barron. “They become even more accessible to people who aren't familiar with technology.” This makes it easier to get new employees up to speed and further improve the emergency response. “You can’t put a price on technology such as Google Workspace when it helps support split second decisions that make the difference between life and death,” Barron says.

*Google Workspace was formerly known as G Suite prior to Oct. 6, 2020.