Sara Tabin | Utah Investigative Journalism Project
The following story was reported by The Utah Investigative Journalism Project in partnership with The Spectrum News and The Salt Lake City Weekly.
The past couple of years have been rife with existential threats for Utahns — an earthquake, wildfires, supply chain shortages, not to mention multiple waves of coronavirus surges. It’s been enough to make anyone fear the worst. Preppers, once an object of ridicule, began to receive praise in the national media for their forbearance in the face of catastrophe.
For Ivins, a small bedroom community nestled amongst the red rocks near St. George, individual preparation alone was deemed insufficient against future calamities by local city leaders who decided to take the survivalist mindset to the municipal level.
Metal boxes with red lettering reading “DISASTER HUB BOX” on them decorate posts in neighborhoods across Ivins.
The boxes can be opened with any flat, metal object like a coin, but a 150-decibel alarm is supposed to sound when the box is opened. Tampering with the box could lead to a $1,000 fine, the red print warns. The boxes are under surveillance by motion camera detectors.
Each box contains a portable two-way radio (think Walkie-Talkie), a light, clipboards with paper forms and mechanical pencils. The city has 74 boxes in total, distributed throughout different sections of the city, which are dubbed “zones” and clustered into 13 “Emergency Preparedness Areas.”
The basic plan goes like this: In the event of a disaster that lays waste to the town and impairs standard communication lines, those who are able will assemble at the boxes. The first person to arrive will be named a “zone leader.”
The residents will use the clipboards and paper to assess the damage at each house in the neighborhood. Their findings will be relayed to the city via the radios. The city can then deploy emergency resources to the places most in need.
The boxes have elicited mixed responses. Some residents laud them as a crucial safety measure. Others are concerned they amount to a waste of public money. Either way, they are certainly unique. So much so that Ivins’ mayor has patented them.
Fires, floods, and LA refugees
Boxes might be used in the event of damage from wind, floods, or fires, according to city records. They might also be used for distributing food and medical supplies if a pandemic or “civil unrest” shuts down supply chains.
“Seeing calamities occurring everywhere I felt it important to prepare our City for any eventuality,” Mayor Chris Hart said in an email to The Utah Investigative Journalism Project. Hart said FEMA has outlined disasters like fire, flooding and earthquakes as risks for Ivins.
When asked about the city’s stated concerns about “civil unrest” Hart said it wasn’t in reference to the police reform protests that gripped the nation in the summer of 2020, around the time the boxes were first installed
“It was something a FEMA staff person had mentioned to our Public Safety Director referring to the possibility of a disaster occurring in LA or Vegas that might force the migration of a large number of refugees in our direction, not a local protest or civil disturbance,” Hart explained.
Hart said the idea for the boxes came to him after years of involvement in emergency planning. He became concerned that a communication link between neighborhoods and municipalities was missing in typical disaster preparation. Finding nothing on the market to fill the niche, Hart said he thought up the Hub boxes and assembled a prototype with his own money.
At least one outside disaster expert says the plan could fill an important gap if it is executed properly.
When a hazard like a flood or storm hits, it can take a lot of time to go out and survey the damage, said Aaron Clark-Ginsberg, a behavioral and social scientist at the RAND Corporation think tank who researches disasters.
If the boxes can help survey the damage more quickly, that could be really valuable, he said. He said the “devil is in the details” for disaster preparation, but he is interested to see how and if the boxes work.
“If they are actually achieving their aim, then there’s a lot of benefits, but who knows if they are achieving their aim or not,” he said.
One concern with such a project is access, and who can get to the boxes, said Clark-Ginsberg. He said it is great that Ivins’ boxes are spread out around the city, but there are still unknowns about who will use the boxes and whether community members are properly trained in how to use them.
The boxes were put to the test during an Ivins-wide drill in September 2021. Residents were supposed to listen for the sound of a firehouse emergency siren. They were instructed to then gather at their local box, open it, activate the radio, and report to the city.
The plan hit a hitch when the city’s firehouse siren didn’t go off. Instead, emergency vehicle sirens were deployed around the city to signal the start of the drill.
In the end, 371 residents, or about 4% of the population, participated, according to initial city results. Hart said in an email that actual participation was over 450 since some resident counts that hadn’t been radioed to the city were found on clipboards later.
Another drill is supposed to happen in April amid Utah’s shakeout earthquake drills. Ivins also had a booth about disaster readiness, including the boxes, at its September Heritage Days celebration.
Residents’ mixed opinions
Some residents who spoke with The Utah Investigative Journalism Project were enthusiastic about the boxes.
Lydia Nelson of Troy’s Custom Body and Paint said she thinks the boxes are “very positive.”
Nelson, who identified herself as a local captain for the city’s disaster planning, said she thinks the boxes are well planned and well-executed. She said they will be good to have in the event of natural disasters like floods or earthquakes.
Most people contacted by The Utah Investigative Journalism Project either hadn’t heard about the boxes or didn’t have a strong opinion on them. Several said it will be difficult to judge the boxes until the time comes to use them.
Hollie Hope said she didn’t know enough about the plan to have a strong opinion. “I suppose we will never know until it’s used in an emergency,” she said.
Roger Head, a member of the board of Kayenta Arts Foundation, said he doesn’t think the boxes are a bad idea, but he isn’t sure people will actually use them in the event of a disaster. He said people might be too preoccupied to go open the boxes and connect with the city.
“If they work as they are designed, they are awesome,” said Garold Dodds of Sew Fun. He said he plans to wait and see how things pan out.
Not everyone is keen on the idea.
Jamis Palmer said he doesn’t see the value in the boxes and is concerned they were a waste of city money. Palmer said he thinks neighbors will rely on each other, not city services, in the event of a large disaster.
Palmer said he feels that the city decided the boxes were a good idea without getting input from the residents who paid for them. He described this as “government at its finest.”
Materials and assembly for the city-wide boxes cost $17,045.82. That figure includes the purchase of the exterior boxes, money for the radios and other interior pieces, and the cost of the exterior decal, according to city officials.
A search of Ivins’ City Council agendas and minutes did not find an agendized vote on the Hub Boxes. Hart asked members of the city council during an April 2019 meeting about budgeting $15,000 for Rapid Damage Assessment Kits which would include a radio and forms. The council agreed.
Funds for the Hub boxes were included under Equipment for Public Safety for the 2020 and 2021 fiscal years. No separate vote occurred on the boxes, according to City Manager Dale Coulam.
The creation of the boxes apparently caused a stir with some residents posting concerns on social media that Hart was profiting off the boxes, a claim he vigorously denied at a Jan. 21, 2021 city council meeting. Hart said he hasn’t made a penny off the boxes but has sunk hundreds of hours into creating them.
Hart filed a patent for the boxes in September 2020, but says he did so for Ivins’ benefit. He said he wanted to make sure no one else could patent the boxes in the future and charge Ivins for using them. The city could potentially profit from the boxes if they catch on, according to Hart.
“Having no personal interest in manufacturing, marketing or distributing the box I hired an attorney to draw up a licensing agreement should someone else desire to produce it commercially with substantial royalties stipulated to be paid to Ivins City and none to myself to avoid any perception of a conflict of interest,” he said in an email. “To date I have received no compensation associated with the Disaster Hub Box and won’t for at least the period of time I will serve in public office.”
Another point of concern has been the boxes’ $1,000 tampering fine.
“Here’s what I’m worried about,” said City Councilman Dennis Mehr at the Jan. 21, 2021 meeting. “I have a box out in my front yard, thank you by the way whoever put it there, and I have observed children in the neighborhood looking at it and being curious and I would hate for a nine-year-old to be slapped with a $1,000 fine if they innocently did something.”
He asked whether kids’ parents could be on the hook for $1,000 if a child opens a box out of curiosity. City Manager Dale Coulam said the fine is up to $1,000. It is not a mandatory minimum.
Blessing the city
The boxes are just one part of the city’s FEMA-based three-tiered approach to disaster planning.
Under tier one, residents are advised in city documents to prepare themselves and their families for disasters through steps like storing extra food and water or a first aid kit.
The city offers free seminars and workshops on disaster readiness such as “Myths and Deceptions about Long Term Food Storage” and “Cooking your long term food storage and alternate heat sources.” There are also online resources with tips for gardening in Southern Utah and preparing pets for emergencies.
Tier two of the plan is the community level response, which includes residents trained in disaster response including basic first aid skills.
“In a disaster the resources that are available from cities and counties are gonna be exhausted very quickly,” said David Williams, the Ivins Disaster Preparedness Program area coordinator for Kayenta. “We need to be able to help each other in the meantime.”
The boxes fall under tier two. Tier three of the plan is the government, including firetrucks and ambulances.
For his part, Hart says he created the boxes to do something good for his city.
“… I have tried very hard to bless my City with what I believe to be the most advanced emergency response Tier 2 …. plan that exists anywhere,” said Hart in an email. “For its participation in the Disaster Hub Box experiment I further intend to further bless it with substantial royalty revenue should my idea prove to be commercially viable.”
While Hart says he won’t profit from the boxes “at least” while in office, even profiting off potential future profits could be ethically problematic says John Pelissero, senior scholar the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University. He says officials should recuse themselves from voting on projects, even if they just have a “personal” interest in them.
“The public’s trust in the mayor or city government could be eroded if the public believes that the mayor has profited from the actions of the city government that he leads,” Pelissero said, even if the private gain happens in the future.
But future profits would also depend on how well the boxes work. The truest test of the boxes’ utility will indeed be time.
As climate change exacerbates natural disasters worldwide, Ivins could get the last laugh. Maybe the boxes will fail as people forgo them in favor of focusing on dealing with problems themselves. Maybe they will be rendered unnecessary if cell service isn’t impeded in the wake of a natural disaster. Maybe the devastation that follows a natural disaster will be so great that the city won’t be able to do much anyway.
But perhaps the rest of the state will be scrambling in the aftermath of earthquakes, fires, and floods as Ivins’ citizens take stock of their canned food and form orderly lines in front of their Hub boxes.