Librarians Respond to Emergencies

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During major emergencies one hears references to first responders. The first thing you think of are firefighters and emergency management personnel, and with good reason.

But libraries and librarians can also be counted among the first responders, as was illustrated by the recent wildfires that raged through Colorado.

As reported in this article in the Denver Post, the Poudre River Public Library District played a valuable role in assisting residents who had been evacuated during the High Park fire.

The article said librarians set up a table in the corner of the Thomas H. McKee Community Center in Larimer County, where, it said at the time, "evacuees are taking shelter, where kids can play with toys, read, watch cartoons and put puzzles together. There also are Internet-connected laptops available for contacting family."

The library's executive director, Holly Carroll.said when the emergency began in June, staff discussed whether it could use a grant-funded mobile lab.

"So our outreach manager immediately made a contact with county offices and with the Red Cross, and the first evacuation center was set up at one of the middle schools," in an area close to the fire, north of the city of Fort Collins.

At that center and its subsequent locations, the library provided essential services.

"The primary purpose was for evacuees that might need Internet access, but more importantly so the evacuees could register with the Red Cross, so if family were concerned and wondered if they got out safely, they could go the site to find out," she said. 

She added that she found that many elderly residents with land lines were registering their children's cell numbers, so they could receive the reverse 911 service and learn if they could return to their homes.

The center also provided information by projecting the most recent fire maps.

"The sheriff and the fire department would post new fire maps daily but they were updated more frequently on the Web," she said, so the library projected that information on the walls.

News forecasts were also projected.

"Then we realized that children might need some entertainment - those who had been evacuated," she said, noting that there were briefings the first week of the fire attended by as many as 500 people.

As a result, there was a nook with stuffed animals and children's books, with reading material for adults too.

Also, outside the evacuation center, the library created a website with critical links and information, including the sheriff's Twitter account and the Red Cross website and fire maps.

She said the library's services at the evacuation center ended after two weeks, but the website remained up, and the library provided such materials as books and crafts for children.

"We're now really directing people to our libraries," she said. 

During the crisis, the emergency providers were grateful for the library's services.

"The Red Cross said, 'We really don't have time to set up computers. Thank you for being such a first responder.'"

Children’s Library corner set up at Disaster Recovery Center, Colorado State University campus.

Article illustration: “Poudre River Libraries’ Corner” in the Evacuation Center for High Park Fire, Fort Collins, Colorado.
2: High Park Fire Evacuees use the Poudre River Public Library District’s mobile lab to get updates and internet access.

3: Children’s Library corner set up at Disaster Recovery Center, Colorado State University campus.