State, County EM Deploy Portable Radio Stations to Oak Creek Canyon

State, County EM Deploy Portable Radio Stations to Oak Creek Canyon

A RadioSTAT Portable Emergency Advisory Radio Station broadcasts from a utility shed at Slide Rock State Park. Two RadioSTAT devices were set up to advise visitors of the post-fire flash flood hazard in Oak Creek Canyon.

PHOENIX—RadioSTAT isn’t much to look at. It doesn’t have a retina display for watching HD movies, and you can’t use it to upload selfies to Facebook or map a route to a restaurant. But in the right context—for example, the Slide Fire burn area—the RadioSTAT Portable Emergency Advisory Radio Station might be the best mass communication tool available.


The Slide Fire burnt 21,227 acres in late May and early June 2014. U.S. Forest Service officials reported in July that 46 percent of the total acreage (or 10,182 acres) burned at moderate to high severity. If rain falls in a moderate to high severity burn area there is the potential for a “severe hydrological response”; in other words, rapid water and debris runoff.


In early July, the Arizona Division of Emergency Management deployed two RadioSTAT systems to Oak Creek Canyon at the request of the Coconino County Department of Emergency Management. One was placed at Slide Rock State Park; the other in an Arizona Department of Transportation (ADOT) maintenance yard at the top of “the switchbacks” at the north end of the Canyon.


The RadioSTATs were requested as part of a larger alert and warning strategy devised by Coconino County in concert with its local, state and federal partners.


The RadioSTATs deployed to Oak Creek Canyon are programmed to broadcast a 60-second message, which plays on a continuous loop and describes the conditions for activation of the Canyon’s emergency sirens, a network of nine alarms that stretches the length of the Canyon.  Coconino County emergency manager Robert Rowley said the script was kept short to ensure northbound motorists hear the entire message at least once.


The Sedona Fire District will sound the Canyon sirens for three minutes anytime the National Weather Service in Flagstaff issues a flash flood warning for the Slide Fire burn area. Rowley estimates that anyone in the Canyon when the sirens go off has maybe two minutes to get to high ground.


Without the RadioSTATs, Rowley believes that most visitors to the Canyon would not know what to do if the sirens went off. “The sirens could mean any number of things to a visitor to the Canyon,” said Rowley. “In some parts of the country, for example, sirens are used to warn people of a tornado.”


Rowley’s one constructive criticism of RadioSTAT is that their range is limited. The maker of RadioSTAT advertises that the system broadcasts over a 3 to 5 mile range, but in Oak Creek Canyon, where cell phone reception is hit or miss, the actual broadcast range is much less.


Rowley said that because the ADOT lot is located at the top of the switchbacks, the broadcast from that particular station can be heard for about 3 miles. Meanwhile, the RadioSTAT sitting in a utility shed at Slide Rock has only a half mile reach. All difficulties aside, Rowley describes the RadioSTAT systems as “the final pieces of the puzzle.”


The puzzle Rowley is referring to is the challenge of educating as many people as possible of the flash flood threat. The greater Sedona area, which includes the Canyon, attracts several 100,000 visitors and passersby each year, second only to Grand Canyon National Park. Getting the word out to that many people takes a team effort.


Coconino County and the Sedona Fire District are working with the City of Sedona, the U.S. Forest Service and various local, state and volunteer organizations to raise public awareness of the flash flood threat. Aside from using RadioSTAT, the County and its partners have created brochures and flyers and placed electronic road signs at both ends of the Canyon. “We want to do everything in our power to make residents, business owners and visitors in the Canyon aware of the danger and what to do if the National Weather Service issues a warning,” said Rowley.


“Emergency management lives and dies by collaboration,” he added. “In this circumstance, it’s been near perfect collaboration.”



The RadioSTAT stations will remain in Oak Creek Canyon until the unofficial end of monsoon season in September, at which time Coconino County and its partners will reassess the need.