Hoping for best, expecting worst, Pitkin County’s MacDonald wins prestigious award | AspenTimes.com

Hoping for best, expecting worst, Pitkin County’s MacDonald wins prestigious award

If you live in Pitkin County, Valerie MacDonald has your back.

The county’s emergency management director has spent the past decade thinking about wildfires, floods, plane crashes and myriad other potential disasters — natural and otherwise — that might befall this slice of Colorado, and how she and others might go about keeping the public safe as the sky falls.

For those efforts, her colleagues at the Colorado Emergency Management Association recently awarded MacDonald Emergency Manager of the Year for the 10-county Northwest Region of Colorado.

“I would call her a real unsung hero in this community,” said Pitkin County Sheriff Joe DiSalvo, MacDonald’s boss. “I really feel blessed to have Valerie here in Pitkin County.”

Each of Colorado’s 64 counties is required by state law to have an emergency management director, who gets paid to lay awake at night envisioning worst case scenarios that might happen but probably won’t. MacDonald has been doing that in Pitkin County for 10 years, the last eight as director.

“The work is never done,” she said Friday. “We’ve not endured many catastrophic emergencies in Pitkin County but we plan and train every day in case something happens. We constantly look for gaps in emergency preparedness.”

The Colorado Emergency Management Association presented Valerie MacDonald, Pitkin County’s emergency management director, with the prestigious Emergency Manager of the Year for the Northwest Region last month. (Courtesy photo)

Sometimes it’s an emergency MacDonald and other local emergency response officials have planned for, and sometimes it’s not.

Gabe Muething, director of the Aspen Ambulance District, has worked closely with MacDonald over the years and said Friday he vividly remembers sitting down as part of the county’s Incident Management Team on March 8, 2020, as the COVID-19 pandemic first descended on Pitkin County and Colorado.

“We had planned and prepared for emergencies, but we hadn’t planned and prepared for that,” he said. “But she had every contact in her phone to get what we needed. She’s one of those silent heroes who always keeps it together and never gets any of the credit.”

Several months later, between Christmas and New Year’s and still in the midst of the rampaging virus, unforeseen disaster struck again when a still at-large vandal or group of vandals sabotaged natural gas lines in the Aspen area. The incident knocked out heat to 3,500 Aspen residents for three days as temperatures dropped into the single digits at night and a snowstorm bore down. No one was injured.

“We call those black swan events,” MacDonald said. “These random events out of the blue … where there’s a million twists and turns along the way. We have to think about what are the cascading consequences.”

No one ever contemplated having to provide heat and care to the county’s most vulnerable residents in the middle of a pandemic, when normal fixes like warming centers could not be utilized because of a disease that also preyed heavily on the most vulnerable, she said.

DiSalvo, whose home was without heat at the time, recalled that, “Valerie came through for all of us.”

“No gas in this valley in December is a worst-case scenario,” he said. “Somewhere she had a plan in the back of her head. She was juggling two pretty big incidents at the same time. She’s juggling chainsaws and getting it done.”

Pitkin County Commissioner Greg Poschman said he has often wondered how MacDonald ever gets a good night’s sleep.

“When you think about it, it’s a very heavily weighted job,” Poschman said. “It’s stressful. And she’s come through it exceptionally well.”

MacDonald said that when she first started as emergency management director, she “felt very vulnerable at first.” But a decade down the road, her sleep habits are all good because she has great confidence in the systems that she and others have built in Pitkin County.

For example, before she and Pitkin County Undersheriff Alex Burchetta started at the Sheriff’s Office, there wasn’t an Incident Management Team that could be up and running quickly, or a separate team to coordinate resources and support for emergencies she said.

“Once the structure is in place and we have a plan and everyone knows their roles and responsibilities before we have an emergency, we know we will respond better than a community that doesn’t have that in place,” MacDonald said. “I’m very comfortable because of the team we’ve developed.”

Still, she said managing emergencies also requires buy-in from residents.

“We will not be successful unless the public is involved,” MacDonald said. “They need to ask themselves, ‘What have we done to prepare for an emergency?’”

Aspen’s geography, in particular, provides challenges that could easily bog down any evacuation plan in the event of, say, a fast-moving wildfire like the one that hit Boulder County this winter, MacDonald said.

She urged residents to come up with an evacuation plan and practice it. Have an emergency “go-bag” ready, know the routes to take to evacuate should that become necessary, establish a family communication plan and a consider what to do with pets, she said. Much more information on such plans is available at PitkinWildfire.com.

“The best advice is to leave early,” she said. “You know you will be in gridlock.”

DiSalvo said he’s confident that MacDonald’s planning, networking and knowledge translates into a safer environment for Pitkin County’s residents.

“The fact that she goes to work on these potential tragedies better prepares us if it happens here,” he said. “I really feel comfortable for how prepared we are for an emergency.”

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