By Matt Volz 

Montana fire officials turn to Twitter for updates


HELENA — Fire response coordinators in Montana will use the social media website Twitter this year for the first time as a way to update residents of wildfire developments such as road closures and evacuation notices.

A state Department of Natural Resources and Conservation committee spent 15 months examining a wide range of social media before deciding on Twitter because of its simplicity and popularity, agency spokesman John Grassy said.

After seeing the success of Twitter updates in states such as Washington and California, DNRC officials decided to try it out this fire season on a limited basis.

"The goal is to be able to provide updates, particularly on initial attacks or extended attacks, when it's a fast-moving situation," Grassy said.

The updates from the Twitter page @)MTDNRCFIRE, will be another tool used by the state to update wildfires in addition to telephone alert systems that can target homes and cellphones in specific geographic regions and the fire information website InciWeb.

The details are still being worked out, such as the number and type of fires that will be updated using the technology, he said.

Earlier this week, New Mexico officials unveiled a new statewide email notification system to alert residents of wildfire dangers, the first such statewide system. Grassy said there are no plans to develop a similar notification system in Montana, but officials here will be watching how the program develops in New Mexico.

The Northern Rockies Coordination Center, which manages fires in Montana, North Dakota and parts of Idaho, Wyoming and South Dakota, started using Twitter last year to send out updates from the handle (at)NRCCNewsNotes. But unlike the state, the coordination center's 189 followers are mainly fire managers, not residents, and its information is more likely to be about equipment and personnel movements.

Intelligence coordinator Julie Polutnik said the technology has made it easier to disseminate information to decision makers on the ground, but that information has to be relevant to the moment or its value is lost.

"It doesn't make sense to post stuff if it's two hours after the fact," Polutnik said. "So many people have smartphones, they like having (the information) in their pocket."

In a state like Montana, with its open spaces, mountains and wilderness, there are plenty of dead zones for cellphones. That may be a limiting factor in how effective the new state updates will be.

Grassy said DNRC doesn't know how many additional people it may reach through its new Twitter feed.

"Being a rural state does have its own challenges and every fire is different," he said. "That's why we want to have several tools at our disposal, including updates to the press."


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