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Neighborhood Communications Guide

IMPORTANT NOTE: Local communications networks are NOT A REPLACEMENT for official emergency communications and alerts. EVERYONE should be signed up MendoAlert (Everbridge) and NIXLE regardless of what other systems you may be part of. Visit this blog post to learn how to sign up. 


Introduction to Neighborhood Emergency Communication Systems

Phone trees have long been a cornerstone of community organization. They provide a methodical way to get the word out when there is something that the local neighborhood needs to hear, be it a tree blocking a road, an upcoming workday, a meeting, or a community BBQ.

They can be even more vital, and even save lives, in the context of a Neighborhood Fire Safe Council (NFSC) when word needs to get out about a nearby emergency. NFSCs can also use phone tree communications to get more detailed, locally relevant information about nearby incidents or about what is happening when smoke is the air from a fire that turns out to be far away incident.

However, manual phone trees can be unreliable, since they depend on key people in the communication chain being available and relaying the message correctly. Fortunately, there are many automated versions of a phone tree that can get the job done more quickly and reliably.

Having a local emergency notification network as a feature of your NFSC can not only be a huge benefit in an emergency, it can also be a significant member recruiting tool for your neighborhood or area group. When danger is nearby, people like to be informed. You may discover that many of your neighbors will sign on to your NFSC just to be included in the emergency communication chain.

Automated messaging systems such as DialMyCalls or One Call Now can dial out a message (and redial if there is no response, a busy signal or a message machine answers), and send texts and email your contact list. As of this writing, DialMyCalls provides a low cost per message rate that may be efficient for groups that send out fewer messages. One Call Now has a flat rate program that can be thrifty for groups that plan to use their system frequently. Other providers such as the Telegram Application, Call-Em-All and Text-Em-All (and likely others) provide similar services.

Running these systems efficiently takes some level of local organization. This includes designating

  1. Who has the authority to send messages;
  2.  Situations qualify for using the system;
  3.  Someone responsible for tracking unsuccessful contacts and decide whether a neighbor should be called to knock on the door;
  4. A system for coding messages so that people can understand how urgent they might be at a glance.

There are also several other technologies that may be a better fit for different circumstances, such as areas with limited or no cell or internet service, or as a back-up option in case local cell towers become inoperable in an emergency. Those technologies include local radio communication, walkie talkies, or siren systems.

NFSCs in Mendocino County have pioneered the use of many of these options and offer the following notes to inform future users. Notes were compiled from the January 15th, 2021 MCFSC Neighborhood Firesafe Council Leadership meeting in which several local groups were consulted about their experiences with communication systems.

As noted above, there are a number of automated phone tree service options. For the most part they offer similar services. However, they can vary significantly in terms of pricing plans. As of this writing, Ridgewood FSC uses One Call Now, which offers a flat rate that may be the best deal if your group plans to use the service regularly.

If, on the other hand, your group is just “getting its toes wet” on the emergency communications front and will likely only use the system in more extreme circumstances, DialMyCalls offers a low cost “per credit used” option. Because DialMyCalls offers significant discounts for both nonprofit groups and for volume purchases of “credits,” the MCFSC maintains a large DialMyCalls account. Your group can set up its network account under the MCFSC master account to enjoy those low rates.

When you set up an account under the MCFSC master you will get your own password to manage your group’s data. The MCFSC does not access your group’s information, monitor or in any way control your use of the system and will not send its own messages to your group. When you use the system, you are billed $0.035 per credit at used as follows:

1 credit = 1 call to 1 number with a 30 second message
1 credit = 1 text to 1 number with a message up to 157 characters.

For every additional thirty seconds longer your recording is, or for every 157 characters your text message is, each number called or texted is charged for an additional credit. When you send voice or text message you will have the option of also sending an email message at no additional cost.

For details on how to establish a DialMyCalls sub account with the MCFSC click here.

Ridgewood FSC’s primary alert system is through One Call Now which provides a flat rate for unlimited usage. They use it for all notifications for all incidents in the area and neighboring areas. They asked for a $5.00 donation per line and others helped with bigger donations that they use to cover people who couldn’t afford it.

Ridgewood FSC has a number of mechanisms in place to identify and communicate about emergencies.
1. A team of people monitor scanners, Facebook pages, and tweets from the Sheriffs and fire departments in fire season.
2. A google voice number (707-518-FIRE) people can use to report any incidents in the area and are also
3. Ridgewood FSC is working to set up 2-way communications with the Mendocino Office of Emergency Service, Little Lake Fire Department and Cal-Fire to share information on incidents in the area.
In their first year (with about 80 properties involved) there was a core of 3 people who called or texted each other when a message needed to go out. Now that they have expanded to cover about 700 properties, they are transitioning to a similar program to the Telegram App that Sherwood uses for initial internal communications.

They use a standard coding system to signal levels of alerts based on the Australian fire alert system. Red: immediate danger or evacuation warning. Yellow: be aware threat in area. Blue: information, not immediate threat.

They typically send out multiple messages, an initial broadcast, a final broadcast, and frequent in between to keep people up to date. For fires in neighboring areas, they will send out a message to notify there is an indecent, and a final message once it’s resolved. They will also send general public safety alerts regarding traffic, road closure etc.

Ridgewood FSC maintains two back-up emergency alert systems. Their primary back up system is walkie talkie radio system. Its range varies widely from 5-6 miles in some areas while in other areas transmission is limited. Using the system requires much testing to find the best band for use in your area and make sure people know where the relay points need to be. The second backup network includes a portable siren and air horns; three honks on the siren or horn will notify people to tune in for alerts and get their radios on.

Additional information from the letter Ridgewood FSC sends to new members of its system available at this link.

Sherwood maintains a similar system to Ridgewood FSC but they use DialMyCalls. The voice call component is particularly important for them since many people in their area only have voice or landlines. They use a Telegram App to communicate internally among the core group that decides when to send wider group messages, and to when to share information from group members who monitor scanners. They have scanner scouts who capture important dispatch information and relay it via the Telegram App to the team that manages the DialMyCalls messaging. This system allows for residents to get notice of activity in their area far in advance of official broadcast warnings. This system covers about 2,000 homes and 5,000 residents. Often in the 10 or so minutes it takes to get basic incident information drafted for a DialMyCalls notice, updates will come in or the incident will be resolved so there is always a judgment element about when and what it worth sending. The delay between initial notice to the core group via the Telegraph App and having a DialMyCalls notice ready provides an opportunity to make those decisions and for someone with direct visual information to have checked in. It is important to make sure that 911 or the proper authorities have been alerted when reports come in. For large groups like Sherwood DialMyCalls allows them to segment by area and target messages for individual neighborhoods. They do hear from members that people prefer to get all the information possible.

Sherwood notes that it is important to think through how the communications system will work in a real emergency. For example, if the communication team is evacuated, they need to have a remote location from which to be able to continue sending emergency updates.

Sherwood Firewise’s excellent practices document is available here.

Greenfield has been working on their alert system since 2013. They experimented with CB, FRS handhelds, UHF radio, VHF radio and cell phones. Some of the younger generation have started using Voxer, a 2-way radio app on the cell phone, as a means of community messaging. However, like other cell phone based services, that network went down when fires took out cell towers.

Overall Greenfield has found that VHF radios is what works best for their region although it is somewhat pricey at about $300 per unit. They have 65 households on VHF radio net now. A number of them also have scanners so their radios aren’t on all the time. (Developing practices to keep the radios charged took time for people to master, given that the community is off grid.) The VHF radio is strongest with line-of-sight signals, but does bend to provide coverage out of the line of site. The radios are also portable, and can go with you when you are out on the property. From 2014-2020, the network functioned with relays from person to person, since the signal was not strong enough to cover the entire area. In 2020 they added an antenna/ repeater, which required the Ranch as an entity to acquire an FCC license. With that addition everyone on the network is able to reach everyone else and the system is also able to serve some neighboring communities. Notably the Greenfield system operated without any centralized monitoring for or screening of messages. I.e., they system has functioned to keep people informed by relying on people to self-regulate what they choose to broadcast to the group. They do perform a radio test once a month to test the system and make sure everyone knows how to use and check in on the system (including practicing how to be brief and relay just the important points).

Additional Details about Greenfield’s systems are available here.

Work to be developed: A number of neighborhood groups indicated that they would appreciate additional work around how to connect local networks and official networks so that they can best share information. E.g., How can official agencies can benefit from local eyes on the ground to learn more about current conditions? How can NFSC networks work with agencies to get the best information?