Pitkin County team prepares for disaster
ASPEN – A fictitious disaster in Carbondale last week triggered the debut of Pitkin County’s Emergency Operations Center.
The center isn’t so much a place as it is people – “civilians” assigned to back up emergency personnel when an emergency – a wildfire, for example – requires more than a quick response by fire crews and law enforcement personnel.
Tom Grady, the county’s emergency manager, puts it this way: If a fire destroys a residence and leaves four people homeless, front-line personnel can coordinate shelter for the victims and put out the fire. If an exploding wildfire forces mass evacuations and leaves 400 people homeless, fire crews and the police will have their hands full. The fire department won’t be organizing shelter.
Rather, a fully staffed Emergency Operations Center will.
Last week’s test run involved a theoretical mudslide wiping out a Carbondale neighborhood. There were presumed fatalities and injuries. The center was set up at the Carbondale Fire Station, one of four designated sites for the mobile operation (the others being the operations center at the Aspen-Pitkin County Airport, the North 40 Aspen Fire Station and the Basalt Fire Station in El Jebel).
About 50 people participated in the exercise, including representatives in Pitkin, Eagle and Garfield counties, along with members of the Pitkin County Public Safety Council. But at the heart of the drill were 15 people, mostly employees of Pitkin County and city of Aspen government, who’ve been assigned roles in emergency-support functions. They (or their alternates) would convene whenever the Emergency Operations Center is activated, showing up with laptops, cellphones and the list of resources they’ve each compiled to help marshal resources in the event of a disaster.
The pretend mudslide, for example, resulted in the death of a herd of cattle.
“What do you do with 40 cows?” Grady mused.
The person assigned to transportation and the person handling oil and hazardous-materials response came up with a plan to get the animals to a pit that was to be dug at the county landfill specifically to deal with the situation.
The person in charge of hazardous materials was thrown another curve – a meth lab amid the destruction.
“It’s a huge step for us that we’ve identified where these centers are and having people in these positions,” said Valerie MacDonald, an emergency management administrator for the county. “Their job is to develop a resource list – figure out who to call.”
In the past, a hastily assembled command group representing various agencies would have been the county’s response to a large-scale disaster, according to Grady. Now, the team is in place before disaster strikes and team members already know who to call for whatever is needed.
Liz Stark, county public health director, fills the EFS-8 slot (that’s Emergency Support Functions 8) assigned to public health and medical services. EFS-8 is the same position in every county that has adopted the system, and on the regional, state and federal level, in a framework developed by the federal government.
If a response grows too big for the local Emergency Operations Center, the system can be expanded as necessary, with a corresponding position assigned the same duties at each level.
“Each layer brings in whole other level of resources,” Grady explained.
But at the local level, Stark’s duties involved arranging adequate coroner and ambulance services, mental-health support for both responders and victims, and coordinating an environmental-health response.
For example, Stark said: “Is the water contaminated? Could the water be contaminated? How do we prevent the water from being contaminated?
“I learned so much in that exercise,” she said. “On the surface, you might not think that public health would have a role in something like this.”
Phyllis Mattice, assistant county manager and ESF 14 (in charge of long-term recovery), marveled that the county has put in place the same system that’s used to respond to a huge disaster – Hurricane Katrina, for example – breaking down the response into manageable assignments.
“If anything happens, you know your role, go do it,” she said.
“This is an accepted, conventional way of managing large-scale emergencies,” agreed Carbondale Fire Chief Ron Leach, whose fire district covers part of Pitkin County.
“I think that this type of emergency management will absolutely speed up responses and speed up recovery efforts,” Leach said.
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