Many Teton County residents’ evening was interrupted last week by an alarming message last Tuesday.
“Spring Gulch Rd is CLOSED from Highway 22 to Sagebrush Dr due to law enforcement activity. AVOID AREA,” read the text from the Teton County Sheriff’s Office.
It was sent just before 9 p.m. through Nixle, the county’s text and email alert system.
Eleven minutes later, another message revealed there was an active shooter in the area — directing everyone around the eight-mile-long road to shelter in place.
It was an hour before Nixle subscribers received another update: officers were working with a gunman to resolve the conflict. Just before midnight, residents were notified the shelter-in-place was lifted. Law enforcement later confirmed the suspect had been taken into custody and members of the public weren’t injured.
As community members scrambled for information over that three-hour period, the sign-up link for Nixle circulated on online forums and group texts.
According to Teton County Emergency Management Coordinator Rich Ochs, subscriber numbers went up 5% overnight, topping 15,000 users for the first time in a county of over 23,000 people.
Though the county has been using the system since 2009, Ochs said it’s most common to see major spikes in subscribers during “smoke-in-the-air events.”
“It’s when we see major incidents, whether that’s a wildfire, whether it’s a hazardous materials event, whether it’s an armed assailant,” Ochs said.
Another spike came during the Horsethief Canyon wildfire in 2012, according to Ochs, when subscribership went from 200 to 5,000 overnight.
Word of mouth
According to Ochs, Teton County Emergency Management does already have a relatively high participation rate on Nixle compared to the 8,000 other agencies using it across the county.
And he said, in the Jackson area, community members largely sign up for the platform through word of mouth.
On that Tuesday night, shortly after people were first notified about the incident, users on the Jackson Hole Reddit subthread posted screenshots of the Nixle messages, sharing updates as they came.
Local resident Grant Gallaher also posted in an over 2,000-member group message, encouraging people to sign up for the alerts to get information first hand.
“It occurred to me that everyone might not be subscribed to the text updates,” Gallaher told KHOL.
“I was just grateful to be getting what limited information there was at the time and wanted to make sure people had access to that information as quickly as well,” he said.
Keeping neighbors safe
Nixle alerts are rarely sent out. The only other one sent to people’s phones in the last year was in February when there was risk of Flat Creek flooding neighboring townhomes.
Ochs said emergency management sends these alerts when there are serious threats to residents and the public needs to take action.
The goal is to make sure the public has enough information to protect themselves and their family, while also sending them alerts quickly and succinctly.
“If I lived in the area of Spring Gulch and I got that message, I would probably want more frequent messaging,” Ochs said. “But sometimes there’s just not enough information to give out and there isn’t anything new.”
Ochs added Teton County’s high sign-up rate is reflective of the community.
“One of the things I’m very proud of with this community is the level of involvement and how much people want to know this information,” Ochs said, “and how much they want to share official information with their friends and coworkers and neighbors to keep everybody safe.”
To sign up for free text alerts, text TETON_WY to 888777. Reply with ESP to get messages in Spanish.