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What does it take to evacuate a town?

July 19, 2017

ASU emergency-response experts discuss the operational challenges, dangers involved in moving people away from a wildfire

Wildfires spout gouts of flame. Air tankers roar above treetops. Radios crackle, and the sun vanishes behind curtains of black smoke.

All are stock images of fire season in the West. What’s usually missing are lines of cars snaking out of town and despondent people cradling cats in high school gyms.

Evacuating towns is as important as containing the inferno, but it rarely gets attention.

On Tuesday, a massive wildfire west of Yosemite National Park in northern California nearly doubled overnight, forcing 4,000 people to flee the town of Mariposa.

We talked to emergency-response experts at Arizona State University about what it takes to empty a town.

“In general, community-scale evacuations are significant operational challenges,” said Brian Gerber, director of the Emergency Management and Homeland Security program in the College of Public Service and Community Solutions. “Moving large numbers of people out of harm’s way is not an easy task — and can be a danger as the evacuation process itself can put people at risk of harm.”

There are two main considerations in an evacuation, said Scott Somers, a professor of practice with the College of Public Service and Community Solutions with more than two decades of public-safety and emergency-management experience.

First, how do you get people out of harm’s way? Second, where and how do you shelter them?

Usually evacuations begin as a local responsibility, Gerber said. Places where dangers that might cause an evacuation are significant (wildfires in forests, hurricanes on coasts) usually plan and prepare for them.

“Where the risk of evacuation is real, most communities devote meaningful local government resources to preparing for such contingencies,” Gerber said.

When hell breaking loose is imminent, the incident commander (the person responsible for all aspects of an emergency response) works with local law enforcement to identify who is at the greatest risk. After that, it’s mostly up to law enforcement.

“Communications issues — such as making sure the general public knows when to evacuate and what routes to use — are always major challenges,” Gerber said. “Lots of communities have adopted technical solutions such as reverse-911 calls to make sure the public is notified quickly and efficiently and are given the proper guidance.”

Radio and TV stations pass along instructions as well.

“Increasingly we’re seeing evacuation and safety information provided through social-media channels, particularly Facebook and Twitter,” Somers said.

The Emergency Alert System — that creepy sound most people only hear as a test on the radio — is used. It was founded for nuclear war (“Clearly it’s never been used for its original intention,” Somers said), but it still has its value.

“It won’t reach everybody,” Somers said. “You use as many methods as possible.”

Police and firefighters sometimes go door to door, too. Because it’s the 21st century, there are emergency-alert apps. The American Red Cross has an app that will push alerts to phones and oftentimes include evacuation routes and shelter info.

“It’s really important for folks to pay attention to evacuation routes,” Somers said.

Some routes may be swollen with firetrucks. Other routes might be overrun by fire or about to be engulfed. An issue with the evacuation of the Arizona town of Mayer in late June was the fact that there aren’t that many ways to get in and out of the hamlet.

“The issue with Mayer (was) not with numbers, but some of the challenges are limited access and egress,” Somers said. “If people leave too late, they might not get out.”

Local governments need to be committed to emergency preparedness and blunting hazards, Gerber said. And people need to follow the direction of police and fire without second-guessing them.

“The job of local first responders is made difficult when evacuation orders are not followed by the general public,” he said.


Top Photo: Courtesy of

Scott Seckel

Reporter , ASU Now


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ASU-led Psyche mission boosts case for a deeper dive into space

ASU director touts case for space exploration before House committee.
July 20, 2017

Foundation Professor Lindy Elkins-Tanton goes to bat for space exploration at congressional subcommittee hearing

In the week marking the sixth anniversary of the end of NASA’s Space Shuttle program, scientists continue to make the case for space.

Arizona State University’s Lindy Elkins-Tanton was among those calling on the U.S. government to re-energize its support of deep-space research at a hearing before the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology in Washington, D.C., on July 18.

Elkins-Tanton, Foundation Professor and director of ASU’s School of Earth and Space Exploration, took her place on the national stage to offer lawmakers a peek into the known-unknown and share reasons why expeditions like NASA’s ASU-led Psyche mission is critical to our future in space.


“Every time we do something in space it surprises us,” Elkins-Tanton told members of the committee. She emphasized the importance of creating a roadmap toward bigger, flagship missions through projects such as Psyche, noting, “We must try these smaller missions to find out where the biggest surprises are, and then put our money on making the big big discoveries.”

After 135 missions that helped construct the International Space Station and service various Spacelab missions, NASA ended its 30-year Space Shuttle program on July 21, 2011, with the completed landing of the shuttle Atlantis at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Many worried that the end of the program would bring U.S. space exploration and research to a halt. But six years after the fact, the program still inspires.

Psyche is unquestionably one of the most profound space projects ASU has embarked upon in recent years. But it is not the only mission with an ASU nameplate. On the road to discoveries, the university is involved in at least 15 other missions, all of which engage students in science and engineering. And there are some — including Psyche — that also involve student interns in education, outreach and art. It’s this intersection of interdisciplinary collaboration that Elkins-Tanton said is paramount to moving space exploration to the next level and what she and ASU President Michael Crow are working on through the new Interplanetary InitiativeThe initiative is bringing together societal, educational and technical capabilities and concepts for space exploration. to get there.

As the principal investigator of the NASA Discovery Mission Psyche, Elkins-Tanton and her team are building plans — and a spacecraft — to journey to the asteroid Psyche starting August 2022. Discovered more than 165 years ago by Italian astronomer Annibale de Gasparis, Psyche is in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter — for comparison, about three times farther from the sun than the Earth is to the sun. The asteroid is believed to be composed of almost all metal and may be the core remnant of a small, early-formed planet.


The mission to Psyche is unique as a first-time exploration of a metal world. Through the added demonstration of the Deep Space Optical Communications tool to test laser communications between deep space and Earth, scientists will be able to study Psyche and compare the asteroid’s composition to models for the Earth’s core.

Members of the House Science, Space and Technology group also heard from four other planetary experts, each of whom shared status updates on their respective exploratory missions, including the Mars Rover 2020 and the Europa Clipper, which is set to launch in 2022 to study Jupiter’s moon Europa for habitability.

All of the scientists that participated in the hearing touted the conclusions of the U.S. National Research Council’s Planetary Decadal Survey, which helps the government, researchers and scientists prioritize space-exploration quests and their funding. The study stressed the need for maintaining a balanced portfolio of small, medium and flagship missions in order to enable more discoveries and address bigger challenges both in space and on Earth.

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