Safety officials: We’re ready for disaster | AspenTimes.com

Safety officials: We’re ready for disaster

Chad Abraham

An avalanche rolling down the front of Aspen Mountain. Ruedi Reservoir overfilling its banks and flooding the Fryingpan Valley. An airplane crashing into the crowds at the X Games.These are a few of the nightmarish scenarios that local officials hope never will happen but are still preparing for. After Hurricane Katrina hammered the Gulf Coast, officials here say they are getting more inquires into how they would handle an epic disaster.At a press conference Monday in the Pitkin County Courthouse, officials from a variety of agencies said they are well ahead of the South, and most of the rest of the nation, in preparing for the unthinkable.”No single agency can handle a major disaster,” said Tom Grady, vice chairman of the Pitkin County Public Safety Council. He is also director of operations for the sheriff’s office.The emphasis on local preparedness revolves around the council’s incident command system, a management mode and organizational chart that allows officials to handle disasters effectively.Joe DiSalvo, chief of investigations for the sheriff’s office, said the system is used for everything from car accidents to presidential visits.Pivotal in the system is communication: Everyone knows the roles and responsibilities, which Aspen Police Chief Loren Ryerson said helps eliminate arguments over authority.The top positions on the organizational chart, such as incident commander, are interchangeable. This means that in a large wildfire, for instance, a sheriff’s official could run the logistics side of things to free up firefighters for their main task. Within the incident command system are more plans, including ones that cover radio frequencies, medical plans and weather reports.”Whatever life throws at us, we’ll be able to handle it,” said Ellen Anderson, Pitkin County emergency management coordinator.In the case of Ruedi Reservoir, more early-detection equipment is needed to warn of flooding. In that event, officials would have about 30 minutes to evacuate nearby residents. A reverse 911 system in which residents are called at home and warned to evacuate would be employed; the warning also goes out in Spanish. Police and others could also go door-to-door, if necessary, to sound the alarm.As for a giant avalanche on the face of Aspen Mountain crashing into town – whether this could even occur is debatable – authorities have talked with St. Regis officials about their evacuation plans.The incident command system and reverse 911 were even used during Hunter S. Thompson’s memorial, to warn neighbors in a one-mile radius around Owl Farm about the crush of people.While all the plans will be critical in the event of an emergency, another key is ensuring that citizens make their own necessary preparations, Anderson said.”It’s a personal thing to be ready yourself,” she said.All of the agencies involved in the public safety council, including the city of Aspen and Aspen Valley Hospital, continually update and modify their emergency plans.Katrina exposed glaring weaknesses in the preparedness of local, state and federal authorities. But it also exposed just how far ahead agencies here are compared to other parts of the country, DiSalvo said.”We plan and hope like heck it doesn’t happen,” Ryerson added.Chad Abraham’s e-mail address is chad@aspentimes.com